A few days ago, I got to share some of my experiences, methodologies, and ideas about working in women’s health with a group of Catholic leaders from around Asia. They were gathered in Siem Reap for a five-day conference on peace and justice. I used my chance to address them to share about the potential – and the risks – of making a preferential option for women to work against gender based violence. The point that provoked the most discussion was that the church should be helping women and men access comprehensive sex education.
Obviously, this is controversial. I knew that going in. But I also knew there was no way I could honestly address the topic they asked me to speak about, violence against women, without suggesting that some of church’s social teachings were oppressive, rather than liberating, for women and men alike.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but overall I found the group receptive and willing to consider the implications of a radical preferential option for the poor. Even if some participants did not agree, I’m glad to have had the chance to stir up conversation, to suggest that sometimes doing the just thing is exactly the opposite of what the Vatican would have us do, to challenge the pure reconciliation model of domestic violence counseling that the church often employs.
I wasn’t surprised when one woman at the conference approached me afterwards with a question. In a hushed tone, she said, “After everything you said, I’m afraid you might be telling women to use condoms. Are you?”
I told her the truth: that out of respect for Church teaching, we do not include contraception in our formal lessons (and subsequently focus on areas of health other than safe sex) but that neither my staff or nor I would ever lie or withhold information from a woman who asks about options for STI prevention or contraception.
“But why can’t you teach natural family planning?”
I mean no disrespect to people who have chosen natural family planning (NFP), or the rhythm method, as their strategy for birth spacing. But I can’t imagine suggesting it as a viable option for women here.
First, to practice NFP requires daily knowledge about one’s menstrual cycle, body temperature, and vaginal discharge. Many couples in the U.S. even attend workshops to learn how to optimize this method. For women who can’t read, gathering that data and keeping track of it is a lot to ask.
Second, many women don’t have regular hormonal or menstrual cycles. I meet women every week who haven’t had periods in years (but have had babies in the meantime), who get their period every two weeks, who have been spotting every day for a month. I suspect (but have no way to prove) that for some women, these irregularities are the result of chronic malnutrition. Regardless of the cause, going for comprehensive blood work, pap smears, and exams with an OBGYN is not an option, and neither is tracking their ovulation.
Third, the rate of effectiveness, estimated between 74-88%, just isn’t that great. If women are serious about not wanting to get pregnant, there are other options that require no daily maintenance, are not dependent on diet, and are much more reliable.
Finally, many (if not most) times that married Cambodian couples have sex, the men initiate, and the women go along, whether they want to have sex or not. The expectation that a woman should have sex with her husband at any time is pervasive and persistent. It wouldn’t occur to me to counsel women to refuse their husbands sex for twelve consecutive days each month, because it’s probably not something that they would be able or willing to follow through on, without risking marital harmony or violence.
I opened my talk in Siem Reap by explaining that I’m coming from a feminist liberation theological perspective. Based on those teachings, I believe that truth and God are found in lived experiences, especially those of people on the margins. From what I’ve heard and seen from women in Cambodia thus far, natural family planning is not realistic, safe, or liberating.