Bodily autonomy, reproductive freedom, and the environment. A Q&A with Maria Tanyag

Maria Tanyag is a Research Fellow and Lecturer in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. Her research seeks to understand gendered insecurities, contestations and transformative politics in the context of multiple and intersecting crises. She focuses on the Asia-Pacific region and the Philippines in particular. Her most recent publications are: “Sexual Health and World Peace” in the Routledge Handbook of Feminist Peace Research, “A Feminist Call to Be Radical: Linking Women’s Health and Planetary Health” in the journal, Politics & Gender, and “How Feminist Research will Help Solve the Climate Crisis” (available in Spanish). In 2020, Maria was invited by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and UN Women to the ‘Expert Group Meeting on Implementing Beijing+25 Commitments in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic’.

Yarrow Global chatted with her about feminist approaches to understanding the intersection of reproductive health, gender, global health and the environment. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity

YG. Thanks so much for giving us this time today. I’d like to talk about the connection between global health, gender, and the environment. It seems like there is so much of a logical overlap between things like the environment, reproductive rights, reproductive justice, women’s health, etc. but there isn’t really adequate attention being paid to it. Why is it so difficult to connect these topics on a global level or to actually include them in a meaningful way in health frameworks? 

MT: I think if you are feminist informed, than the connections are intuitive between bodily autonomy in general, sexual and reproductive freedoms, and the environment. That’s because a lot of how our bodies are nourished and replenished, our breathing and eating and being is just so intimately connected and interwoven. If you think about scales of relationships, it’s really that full spectrum, right? People’s bodies at one end and then the environment on the other end. 

But to really unpack why we are not seeing these two interconnected things actually politically being connected, I think we need to look at first the politics that are activated by sexual and reproductive freedoms on the one hand, and the distinct politics activated as well when we talk about the environment. Especially now at a time when we are getting a glimpse of what the full effects of climate change might look like. So I’ve started looking at issues of sexual and reproductive health in my own backyard. I’m originally from the Philippines and as a Filipino woman, I grew up with everyday forms of restrictions to sexual and reproductive health. In the Philippines we have a very strong conservative pro-life lobby, which is itself very globally connected with a lot of institutional relationships with pro-life groups in other parts of the world, particularly the U.S.. So I’m seeing all these issues on that very personal level and asking: why is this country so gripped with just the fact of making contraceptives more accessible? 

And then you then start looking at what are the other forms of barriers – legal, social, cultural, political and economic in the country. The Philippines is the last remaining country without divorce, and abortion is highly criminalized. We also have that disconnect between some of the traditional markers of gender equality; the Philippines makes these claims of exceptionalism in terms of gender equality. Based on markers like the World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index and Gender Global Gender Gap Index, the Philippines is a leading country on gender equality in Asia. Before other countries have had their first female president, the Philippines had one in the 1980’s. We’ve had high political participation, so it’s a good case, right? But here is where you see the clear difference of where progress through gender equality has bracketed off sexual and reproductive health because of a very strong doctrinal politics that it activates. 

On the other hand, we have the environment. The reason why the environment is very difficult as a topic to take on in the more nuanced and anchored issues of equality and justice is because this agenda has been first highly securitized. States now see it as something we need to take on board in order to protect our state security. For example we can look at the debate around climate change at the UN and the UNFCCC where we have seen already the language that this is an existential security threat and that climate change is going to amplify insecurities. It’s going to create widespread political instability around resource conflicts and so on. So there is now an interest in seeing this as a security issue. What and how states respond to that is another thing. It’s now securitized in such a manner that major foreign policy making is hinged on what states do in terms of the Paris agreement.

But what we haven’t really challenged or critically examined is that it is very much scientized, meaning that a lot of the expertise and knowledge sources that justify economic, political and social policies around climate change are by reference to scientific expertise. So in the IPCC reports, we always see that this is based on the best available science and even from progressive center left left leaning groups, there’s an emphasis on we need to believe the science, right? And that’s because it’s in reaction to people who are in that anti-science push.

“…absolutely, we need to believe scientists and experts. But building on feminist scholarship and particularly indigenous voices on climate change, we should recognize that that is not the only expertise.

But that has foreclosed the deliberation over what climate change is in a very compounded way. Because first, security is already co-opted in very distinct ways. And global security is so deeply embedded as state security and so deeply about militarism. So for the environment to be framed as a security issue and, without changing all this baggage about how people at the top levels of decision-making understand and think about security, the solutions for the environment then become contaminated by this.This is still about state interests and this is still about how do we militarize our solution to climate change.

And we see the same exclusionary forms of decision-making when we look at how climate change is scientized. Because when we look at and reify particular forms of expertise and science is the arbiter of what is true and what objective, that also becomes problematic. And this is me not saying that science isn’t important. Absolutely, it is important. And absolutely, we need to believe scientists and experts. But building on feminist scholarship and particularly indigenous voices on climate change, we should recognize that that is not the only expertise. And that science itself is political. 

There’s been a long debate on this and that we need to recenter that. Science is not apolitical. The knowledge sources and claims around what is true about the environment will always be partial because what is counted and what is measured will be shaped by the experiences of those who do the counting. So a good contrast of that is, again, if we start with women’s lives and particularly the lives of women, indigenous and internally displaced, how do they make sense of the environment?

I’ve come up with that question because I’ve been seeing the range of barriers, political, economic, social, cultural, that have impacted on men and women’s ability to make decisions for their bodies. It was natural eventually to find that a lot of these barriers are ecological and environmental and that there are clear linkages to the environmental degradation and ecological barriers that people experience for their health and wellbeing, and also to recognize how that has been made worse off because of militarism and historically defined notions of security. 

“To what extent is the reference to the best available science or to the way we scientize climate change actually the very same process that empowers or disempowers men and women from making decisions and having the enabling conditions to live healthy and flourishing lives?”

So the reason why I think that we’re not seeing the connections….. then the next task is to really investigate the confluence of forces between those who are resisting progress on sexual and reproductive health and those who are resisting really substantive, comprehensive and holistic solutions to climate change.

It’s just a bit of murder mystery, a Sherlock Holmes kind of thing. Where are the alliances reconfiguring there? And more to my point, to what extent are religious fundamentalist US Christian right groups so interwoven ideologically and materially with the same drivers that are causing climate change? To what extent is the reference to the best available science or to the way we scientize climate change actually the very same process that empowers or disempowers men and women from making decisions and having the enabling conditions to live healthy and flourishing lives? The final point, I think, is where the interconnections might be is this idea of what is a good life and how we can have that in the context of climate change.

A lot of it involves resurfacing stories of people in the margins, particularly indigenous peoples. For them, and what I’m learning – I do not claim to speak on their behalf – but from what I learned and from how I listen and read about their lives, a lot of this has been a long and historical continuum with colonialism and imperialism. For them, the apocalypse had happened and had begun many years ago, hundreds of years ago, when they were dispossessed of their lands and their connections to their land. And so that they have been able to still resist and thrive is an important lesson for all of us, not because we reify and valorize them as this, you know, and romanticize them as this pure perspective, but rather that we need to look at how their lives have been reconfigured and how they have adapted and how they’ve struggled to flourish. That should provoke us to reexamine our own complicity and our own interconnectedness with their own struggles. If we’re trying to bring together bodily autonomy and the environment, we might actually have a more radical agenda that goes beyond just seeing the environment in a very narrow way. And that actually includes a range of expertise and worldviews and solutions.

YG: There are current efforts to try to connect human health with climate change and environmental degradation, such as Planetary health, One health, and Eco-health. Are these developments positive? Do you see these developments more as kind of a continuation of scientism and the kind of abstracting that has happened historically to health and the environment? Or where do these frameworks fit in?

MT: Obviously, these are very promising efforts and ones that we need to politically support and acknowledge. But learning from sexual and reproductive health and the distinct politics it activates, the danger of conflating all health issues as equal is that we forget that a range of health issues have progressed while others have not.

This is no surprise because, for instance, maternal mortality is still the highest preventable death that many women are exposed to and experience, especially in conflict and fragile settings. So women, especially in conflict and disaster prone areas, may survive a conflict or disaster, or even a health pandemic, but then eventually die because of pregnancy related complications. There is a prominent example for this in the Ebola crisis, which TIME magazine covered. Basically there was a frontline health worker, a woman in the Ebola crisis, and she managed to save the lives of many people at that time. And she herself survived the Ebola crisis. But a few years later or right after that, she actually passed away because of her pregnancy related complications.

The danger of conflating all health issues as equal is that we forget that a range of health issues have progressed while others have not.

So this is exactly what I’m really alerting all of us to, is that we cannot risk conflating all issues as if we are equal or as if they will activate the same dynamics. The reason why we need constantly apply a feminist lens is to see that you might have a tremendous amount of resources or support to address covid-19, for example, or any crises, but unless we are conscious of these gendered politics that are activated, we will miss those crucial gaps and we will sacrifice particular health issues in order to advance a a different type of agenda.

And that has happened historically and until now. If you trace that, how gender equality has progressed, a lot of the where we are lagging or a lot of the gaps are around sexual and reproductive health it’s, for example,  the needs of sexual minorities, like the LGBTQI community. Where is that in discussions of crises? Where is that discussion of the pandemic? How is their distinct bodily autonomy impacted by conflicts, disasters, economic recession? I would argue that the invisibility of sexual minorities within these discussions is linked with politics of bodily autonomy. They are doubly invisible because they transgress gender expectations and norms and precisely because we have in many ways championed gender equality. But gender equality is still very much about maternal identities. So the contradiction there is that we are – on a global level – quite happy to protect mothers. But that’s not going to extend to them being able to control their own bodily autonomy. So we’re quite happy for them to have children, out of doctrinal politics, it’s actually fulfilling their traditional roles as mothers.

But the moment to decide to terminate a pregnancy, for example, or the moment that they deviate from these dominant expectations, and especially if you transgress them —  trans people, for example – you will experience not just the invisibility in global agenda, in the distribution of resources, but in fact, in their everyday lives they will experience and they are already experiencing violence from their own families, from their communities. So we need to think about these things. And while it is very important that we are now seeing the link of eco-health and the linking of human health with the planet, to what extent is this really reflecting that foundational politics or that gender order that has remained intact despite all the progress we’ve had on the political agenda level on gender equality and environment?

We have thus far championed women’s political and economic participation, but without bodily autonomy for the vast, vast majority of women.  What that means is that we are OK on a global level to have women work and contribute to the economy, but in a way that depletes their health and well-being. Why?  Because we are very happy for their labor to sustain households and national and global economies. But we’re not going to replenish the bodies. We’re not going to prioritize their health and well-being. And it’s OK because you have gender and religion to normalize that and condition particular femininities. So to be a good woman is to be a self sacrificing, altruistic woman. And that that whole ideal has been re -embedded and co-opted in neoliberal economic governance where we can and we should be investing in women. We should be promoting women for the economy. And that’s good. But we will not have material redistribution. You will just have your labor, but you will not have the benefits of redistribution of household work or the distribution of caregiving responsibilities and access to foundational health services that are distinctly about protecting your health and well-being.

So it becomes a very depleted environment because it tells women you are valued as a worker for so long as you can contribute to the functioning of economies, but that you will not receive the same inflows to sustain your bodies. And that is then major gender issue because women are distinctly impacted by restrictions to access to contraception and abortion and so on.

YG: I’d love to give you the last word. Is there anything else that you think is extremely salient or important or something that you’ve been thinking about or would like to just comment on?

MT: How do we conjure up and reimagine an alternative politics and economics in the Anthropocene or in the context of climate change? I think while it is important that we pay attention to the struggle and the violence and the inequalities, I also hope that there’d be a space for us to proactively think about what are our feminist informed futures, what is a future where lives are filled with desire and pleasure and joy, and how radical it is to actually even think of these ideas when everything is pushing us to think in very dystopic and in a very survivalist way.

But I’d like to think, inspired as I am by the politics of sexual and reproductive health, that our futures aren’t just about surviving; it is about flourishing and thinking about how we can actually thrive and live desire-filled, joyful lives. There’s a real danger there that I have to contend to on a personal level, too, because in Australia exactly last year we were in Canberra, we were breathing toxic air. For months we had haze and we had the most polluted air in the world because of the bushfires. And then right after that, we had covid-19. And now actually it’s so bizarre because a year ago we couldn’t breathe properly, but this morning now it’s raining and it’s a dark sky.

“…..our futures aren’t just about surviving; it is about flourishing and thinking about how we can actually thrive and live desire-filled, joyful lives.”

It’s so easy to have eco anxiety and that sort of thing that we hear now, especially among young people who feel that they will not have a future. But I think there’s a lot of radical politics that can come out if we rethink and reorient ourselves, protect ourselves from anxiety and envision not a dystopian future, but actually a future where we can all be living fulfilling lives, and that is where we need to equally focus our attention. And I hope that there would also be a space for that because we don’t have a lot of those sorts of conversations. If we have a very depleted order at the moment, What does a regenerative order look like? How do indigenous peoples think of this? How do people in many other parts of the world think of this when they think of a future where they can and their families and friends and loved ones can be living fulfilling lives? What would that future look like?

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