New policy helps promote equality for women, girls

UNITED NATIONS—After eight years of antagonistic relations between the world community and the far-right, ideologically driven family planning policies of the Bush administration, the U.S. is moving back into the international mainstream.

President Barack Obama’s “actions send a strong message about his leadership and his desire to support causes that will promote peace and dignity, equality for women and girls and economic development in the poorest regions of the world,” Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund said at a Jan. 27 press conference announcing Obama’s pledge to restore U.S. funding, which was cut seven years ago by the Bush administration, to her agency.

“And,” she added, “access to reproductive health is at the core of all these issues.”

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) works at the global level to reduce poverty, empower women in the areas of family planning and prevention of HIV/AIDS and, more generally, to improve the health of women and children.

The organization runs a campaign to end fistula, a condition caused when women, especially very young women, after going through long periods of labor without proper medical treatment. People with fistula—a large percentage of them extremely young girls in areas such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo who are victims of wartime rape—end up incontinent and ostracized from their families. While it only costs about U.S.$500 to cure fistula, two million women and girls live with it, and there are 50,000 – 100,000 new cases each year.

Statistics show the necessity of the fund’s work: A woman dies in childbirth every minute, and 99 percent of them are in developing nations, especially Asia and Africa. This adds up, says the agency, to “10 million women over a generation.”

While 180 of the world’s nations have been contributing to the fight against fistula and other problems combated by UNFPA, the Bush administration cut U.S. funding to the fund for ideological reasons: Bush simply refused to give U.S. money, though appropriated by Congress, to any organization that promoted family planning over his “abstinence only” agenda. This put the U.S. to the right of even the world’s most restrictive, anti-women governments; both Iran and Saudi Arabia, not known for their concern for women’s right to choice, donated to the UNFPA.

President Obama has promised $40 – $60 million to the UNFPA, the final amount to be decided by Congress. The low end would cover just under 10 percent of the agency’s $430 million budget; the high end would put the U.S. as the world’s top donor, surpassing the Netherlands’s annual $54 million contributions.

Reflecting on this, Obaid said she believed that “the U.S. will resume its leadership in promoting and protecting women’s reproductive health and rights worldwide.”

In announcing the funding, Obama stated, “the U.S. will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries.”

The funding comes on the heels of a previous announcement that Obama would lift the “global gag rule,” which refused U.S. money to any organization on earth that provides—or discusses—abortion with women.