‘amma raththarang’ (mother is golden) goes a popular affectionate saying in Sinhalese. Sri Lanka boasts one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in South Asia but the darker side of reproductive healthcare remains hushed – abortion. Since abortion is still illegal, Sri Lankan women have limited, if any, access to safe abortion. An estimate by the Ministry of Health quotes that up to 16% of all hospital admissions for women are due to complications of abortion, much of which results in death and sterility.[i] How could the Right to Information help intervene in sexual and reproductive rights (SRH)?
‘If the Right to Information is established and respected, this would be a great way to share information on sexual and reproductive health rights and even laws and remedies related to gender based violence,’ says social worker Prabani Perera, the Sri Lankan Youth Champion for the Asian Safe Abortion Partnership.
‘Service providers in the healthcare sector who are specifically assigned to give information would hesitate to give information on contraception, post-abortion care, etc. due to cultural or social reasons. This is a huge disadvantage for young people as they cannot access information and take informed decisions. Girls especially need to be respected for their rights to know and get information on sexual and reproductive health.’ Post-abortion care is part of the general health services citizens are entitled to under the free healthcare policy. However, many women do not admit themselves into hospitals due to the stigma of the cause of their physical problems.
Sri Lanka has historically been at the forefront of family planning initiatives in developing countries since the 1960s but still, information on contraception is culturally restricted. ‘Even midwives would hesitate to give advice on contraception for youth. This is purely due to cultural taboo, not because contraception is illegal,’ says Perera. ‘Giving information on abortion could amount to a crime but there is a lot of information online. So people who have access to the internet can find out but others, like many from rural areas, cannot ask their healthcare service providers.’ Perera stresses that the Right to Information needs to be respected without discrimination of age, gender, class, or any other factor.
In Rajasthan, India, RTI has been used to investigate the healthcare services for maternal health for people living below the poverty line in Jawaja village. Information was requested about the number of patients treated, types of medicine available, and the application asked for the audit reports of the medical department. The records revealed that the pregnant women should have received free treatment, whereas they were actually paying between Rs 300-400, and that 70 types of medicines were supposed to be administered free of charge. The healthcare officials were held to account and service delivery markedly improved thereafter.[ii]
Although Right to Information may not be able to intervene directly in the status of abortion rights in Sri Lanka, it can be a powerful tool for informed decisions on family planning and to ensure that women receive the right services they are entitled to. Sri Lanka has strong welfare policies: RTI can ensure that the law already in place gets through to its intended recipients.
[i] Kumar, R. ‘Abortion in Sri Lanka: the Double Standard’ American Journal of Public Health. March 2013; 103(3): 400-404
[ii] Nayak, V. ‘Right to Information: a Powerful tool for Citizens’ Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (2005)