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26th Apr 2019

Millions pledged to replace US family planning aid

  • Government representatives lining up at She decides, the international donor conference in Brussels. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

An international donor conference in support of women's sexual health raised €181 million on Thursday (2 March).

The "She decides" event was launched after US president Donald Trump cut aid to foreign organisations that recognise the right to abortion.

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More than 400 participants - ministers, philanthropists and civic society - met in Brussels and discussed the consequences of the move.

"Over the last decade, there has been tremendous progress in the rights of women and girls," said Alexander De Croo, Belgium's liberal minister of development, who hosted the event in cooperation with Danish, Dutch and Swedish minister colleagues.

"Maternal deaths have been halved. More girls go to school than ever. We need to keep this momentum going. We cannot accept that one ideological decision by one country, taken without any evidence, pushes women back to the dark ages," De Croo added.

Funding of overseas abortions with US tax money has been forbidden since 1973. But the so-called Mexico City policy, which Trump put back in place, forbids aid to foreign NGOs that counsel, refer or advocate the right to abortion, even if they do so with their own funds and abortion is legal in their country

The policy is also known as the "global gag" rule because it effectively forbids the spread of information about reproductive rights.

It was first introduced by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and has been rescinded by Democrats and reinstated by Republicans ever since.

But Trump's version is broader than his predecessors, applying to the total US budget, rather than only family planning programmes. There are no exceptions to HIV programmes, as during the George W Bush administration.

That means, for instance, that an organisation working with HIV healthcare isn't allowed to inform a pregnant patient of her full options. Several organisations, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), a major health provider, have already said they won't agree to the conditions set up by Trump.

"Either women will lose their services, or they won't be informed about their ethical and legal rights. It will me with outrage and anger at the cynicism of policymakers, knowing as they must what damage will be done to the organisations working so hard to provide women with healthcare services," said Ann Stars from the Guttmacher Institute, a US-based research centre.

Marta Royo, a delegate from IPPF's Colombian branch, shared the story of a 14 years old girl who was raped by her father and had to visit five doctors before she got help to interrupt her pregnancy.

"One clinic told her she had a tumour, another cited religious objections and a third told her she shouldn't have gotten pregnant in the first place, as if it was her fault," Royo said.

Colombia has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world, she added.

"Now our funding will be cut off because we are doing our job in line with the constitution of our country, which says women have the right to receive information and make their own choices."

Dr Fatima Tasneem, a gynaecologist at Marie Stopes Pakistan, explained how the lack of family planning services was slowing down the country's development.

"Instead of studying and working, women have to stay home with children," Tasneem said.

Pakistan has one of the fast-growing population in the world, with an average of 4.1 children per woman.

Although the country has made good progress eradicating poverty, girls have a lower literacy rate than boys, because traditional gender roles assume they will anyways become mothers and stay at home to take care of the children.

The US administration has yet to explain the exact scope of its funding law, but NGOs fear it will cause a $600 million (€571 million) aid shortfall.

The €181 million were raised through donations from Canada, the Benelux and Nordic countries, the Gates and Children Investment Fund foundations as well as one anonymous US donor, who sent €50 million.

The European Commission, France, and the UK attended the conference but did not make any pledges. Many large countries, such as Germany, didn't send a representative.

"The gap has not been filled yet, but it's only the beginning. Some have told us they needed more time to free up their budget. We will continue to create attention for She Decides in the coming months," said Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister of development.

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