As a man who grew up in a Pakistani Muslim family, I know I need to fight for women's rights

Gender equality will never be achieved if only half of the population have autonomy over their bodies – and as most lawmakers are men, it's up to us to make the difference

Shaffaq Mohammed
Saturday 19 October 2019 15:07 BST
Crowd cheers as Oaxaca becomes second Mexico state to decriminalise abortion

Last month brought to light the scale of threats towards women in public life. Sparked by a debate over Boris Johnson’s rhetoric regarding violence towards women and girls, female politicians across the UK came forward to share their experiences. While their voices are being heard, there are still too many women around the world whose voices are not.

As a new member of the European Parliament, I sit as one of only eight male members of the 67-person team comprising the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality committee. I want to use my position to get men in the UK and around Europe thinking about, and taking seriously, the position of women in every country and in all parts of society.

Part of our Liberal Democrat opposition to Brexit is driven by a strong desire to keep the United Kingdom together. Yet on gender equality, our country is already disunited.

Women in Northern Ireland still find their reproductive rights (or lack of them) subject to draconian laws preventing abortion in all circumstances. The DUP – allegedly determined to ensure that Great Britain and Northern Ireland keep common customs arrangements – is quite happy to see a divergence in women’s rights.

Overseas, while the Republic of Ireland and New South Wales, Australia, are taking crucial steps forward, other parts of the world are moving in the opposite direction. Parts of the United States are taking several regressive steps on reproductive rights. Meanwhile, El Salvador forbids abortion in all circumstances, even when a woman has been raped. Medical professionals are required to report any suspicions that a miscarriage or birth has been induced. This leaves women going through the tragedy of miscarriage susceptible to police interrogation, criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

The unjust nature of the law has been exposed in the case of Evelyn Hernández, whom the El Salvadoran Public Prosecutor’s Office chose to pursue. Evelyn was 18 years old when she was raped by a gang member. She miscarried at home due to an obstetrics complication. When she regained consciousness at the hospital she was arrested and later sentenced to 30 years in jail for aggravated homicide. Despite a higher court then declaring her innocent she remains imprisoned. Evelyn has repeatedly testified that she did not have enough knowledge to recognise the symptoms of her pregnancy and therefore to seek antenatal care. After the horror of rape, it is unimaginable to think she is then treated in this way by a justice system.

Countries where abortion is prohibited do not have lower rates of abortion, merely higher rates of maternal mortality. Rigid laws in many countries have led to an increase in unregulated abortion pills on the black market. It is harrowing to think that amid the many medical advancements of the 21st century there are people that are forced to desperately seek toxic concoctions of fertilisers and dangerous herbs to induce life-threatening “DIY” abortions.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence are rife across the globe, and are used in conflict-ridden parts of the world as an appalling weapon against women, and in these regions many women face unimaginable pain and indignity for want of proper public information, safe healthcare and decent medical facilities.

Growing up in a Pakistani-Muslim family, I know that in many societies discussions about female anatomy and health are taboo. If any sexual health education is provided, it is centred around abstinence. Access to contraception is reserved for married couples. Such factors have resulted in loss of life and female pain.

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The denial of medical services, including reproductive health services that only certain individuals need, is a form of discrimination. As policymakers around the world are disproportionately male, it is imperative we stand shoulder to shoulder with our female colleagues on this issue.

This is not a "women’s issue" but is something our whole society must address. Gender equality cannot be achieved if only half of the population have autonomy over their bodies.

Shaffaq Mohammed is the Liberal Democrat MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber. He represents the Liberal Democrats and the Renew Europe group on the European Parliament’s Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee

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