Targets of Population Control: Latin America

Article excerpt

Latin America

(Translated and excerpted from "Introduccion," by Ana Maria Portugal in "Poblacion: Hablan las Mujeres," Especial Mujer/Fempress, Latin American feminist periodical, Chile, 1993.)

Global food and population policies over the past 40 years have perhaps done more harm than good. Attempts to end world poverty through agricultural "Green Revolution"-type programs have left the land dessicated and people worse off than before. World Bank funding of a dam project in India has flooded vast acres of previously productive land. Countries of the South might well provide for themselves if it were not for the growing of export crops and dependence fostered by aid programs. With equal disrespect, global population strategies view land and women as policy instruments, tools to reach the specified goal. A global, feminist envisioning of alternatives is the only equitable solution to the issues of population growth.

The theme of population control is nettlesome. It has the dubious privilege of having polarized debate on our continent, upsetting the delicate balance of government reasoning, and putting segments of politics, the churches, feminism, and the medical profession into an awkward position in protest actions directed at a very precise target: "Yankee Imperialism."

The decade of the 1950s was very sad for this region because of what happened in Puerto Rico. On that island, an experimental program to test the first contraceptive pill utilized hundreds of women as "guinea pigs." Discovered by scientist Gregory Pincus in the 1940s in North America, the Pill, at that time, contained a dosage three times stronger than necessary, which aggravated the fact that the women were neither informed of the side effects, nor that they were part of an experiment. These facts unleashed a strong opposition movement that had repercussions all over the continent.

Somewhat later, through the film Yawar Malku--a short documentary--Bolivia came to embody the most inflamed battles against population control. Yawar Malku, which in the Aymara language means "Blood of the Condor," was filmed in 1968 by Jorge Sanjines. It condemned the practice of forced sterilizations of indigenous women by health teams with suspected ties to the Peace Corps. As a result of the condemnation, which was heard around the world, the government of then-President Torres expelled that North American organization.

Afterwards, similar cases reinforced the coercive and anti-democratic nature of certain population policies, contributing to the seeming misunderstandings and general lack of confidence in international cooperation. This served to impede finding the true dimensions of the demographic problem. Nevertheless, today the debate over whether it is, or is not, valid to control births for demographic purposes has become even more complicated. The World Conference on Population in 1974, in bucharest, saw many countries entangled in an apprehensive rhetoric. A decade later, a new World Conference on Population took place in Mexico, where a document was drawn up to establish, among other things, that "there is an inextricable link between population, resources, environment and development." At that moment, the visibility of the women's movement, especially around concerns of reproductive rights, became a decisive factor in the outcome of the Conference. Quickly the slogan, "No to Population Control: Women Decide!" became the focal point of the movement--in response as much to the abuses of the past as to the effects of certain birth control policies imposed by the sexist and purely quantitative attitudes of the 1980s. Actually, the debate between feminism and the medical, governmental, scientific and political "establishment" over whether or not there ought to be explicit government population policies has intensified, and already within the movement there are currents of opinion that believe that women's concerns do not extend beyond the right of "choice," just as there are those who insist that feminists must take up the challenge of creating an alternative to govermental population policies: a "feminist" population politics. …