Women\'s Reproductive Rights and Marital Rights: A Comparison of Twenty Countries



As early as 1871, Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized that suffrage alone would not guarantee women?s emancipation. Rather, she noted that in order for a woman to be a truly equal and independent citizen, she must possess the ability to control her own circumstances. "The pride of every man is that he is free to carve out his own destiny. A woman has no such pride" (DuBois, 1981:140). Through this recognition she acclaimed that women must have the ability to control their own lives, namely the ability to choose and control the uses of their bodies.

Yet, in the present world, there exists a dramatic variation from state to state regarding women?s control over their bodies in reproductive and marital issues. Why is it that in countries such as Canada and the United States, women are able to prosecute their husbands for rape, yet in countries such as Sudan, females are genitally mutilated with no recourse; in Brazil, violence against women is difficult to prosecute; and in India many woman have no choice concerning their marriage partner? What accounts for this variation? Is the source of this variation rooted in the political participation of women or does the variation stem from socio-economic modernization? Is bodily control determined by the ideological affiliations of parties within the state? This paper seeks to answer these questions using cross-national data drawn from twenty countries.

Three Theories on the Status of Women

For a woman, effective control over her reproductive, bodily and marital choices is a prerequisite for achieving choice in other areas of her life. Due to technological advances, reproductive control is possible. However, for this control to become a reality, women need access to information and medical services. Access to these materials is often obstructed by state policies, ignorance, religious restrictions, economic impediments as well as other factors. For instance, in Ireland abortion and abortion counseling are illegal as a result of a constitutional amendment passed in 1983, whereas in Norway women have uninhibited access to abortion (United Nations,1989). The degree of control that a woman possesses over her bodily and marital choices varies greatly from one country to another. According to the literature on women in politics and women in development, a number of variables may account for this cross-national variation in levels of control (Bystydzienski, 1995; Haussman, 1992; Hazou, 1992; Kardam, 1991; Leahy, 1986; Meyer, 1987; Scott, 1995). These variables include women?s participation, modernization, and ideology.

One: The Impact of Participation on Women?s Control

Much research has been conducted on the effect that political participation of women has on state policy. It has been argued that women bring a distinct and important voice into the political world. This voice is more likely to address those issues that directly affect the daily lives of women such as health care, child care, and equality concerns and thus it is essential that women represent women. Several researchers support the idea that an increase in the number of women in national office makes an impact on the governmental policies of that state (Brown, 1988; Bystydzienski,1995; Duley, 1986; Edwards, 1986; Freeman, 1995; Padgaonkar, 1993)

As Brown notes, politics has traditionally been defined by the absence of women (1988). As a result, women have been considerably disadvantaged in this influential arena. Due to their lack of control and voice in political decision-making, fundamental rights of women have been manipulated and disregarded. Issues of reproduction and familial relationships that directly affect women?s lives have often been deemed secondary in relation to the state?s interests (i.e., men?s interests). At times, reproductive issues have been drawn into the political limelight as a deterrent to other social and political issues. For instance, the Chinese Communist Party has consistently emphasized women?s biological "inadequacies" during times of surplus labor. This "biologicalization" of women can be viewed as an effort to push women out of the workplace when abundant labor forces exist. The Chinese government is not concerned with the well-being of women, rather it is concerned with economic well-being and it defines women?s roles in terms of that concern. The political use of reproductive, bodily, and marital issues leaves a majority of women in a position of vulnerability.

The number of women directly involved in the political life at the national level varies widely. For instance, in Norway women compromise 35.7% (Nelson, 1994) of the elected representatives