All Eyes on President Obama

aid reproductive health
Wednesday, 18 February, 2009 - 08:53

US President Barak Obama repealed the Republican inspired Mexico City Policy, otherwise known as the ‘global gag rule’ on 23 January. This repeal and Obama’s actions throw the spotlight on a global example of the intimate relationship between politics and humanitarianism.

The various dynamics that define aid provision and funding to developing countries often feature as points of critical discussion when it comes to grasping the complex causes of underdevelopment, and its impact on women’s opportunities to live quality lives. In short, aid is never provided only to improve lives, but also to advance some other goals. Aid providers such as foreign governments have certain requirements that the recipients of the aid must fulfil, if they wish to be granted the funds. While some of these requirements are necessary for clear and effective management of funding on a number of levels, as they set clear boundaries and objectives, they are also often designed according to the value systems and political beliefs of their contributors. Thus, aid requirements can echo a variety of the objectives, in so doing channelling the aid in specific directions and withholding it from others.

Against the background of the recent inauguration of Democrat Barack Obama as the US President, this contribution focuses on the new President’s repeal of the Republican inspired Mexico City Policy, otherwise known as the ‘global gag rule’. This repeal was witnessed around the world on 23 January, and Obama’s actions throw the spotlight on a global example of the intimate relationship between politics and humanitarianism.

The ‘global gag rule’

The Mexico City Policy was originally introduced by the Reagan administration in 1984. It determines that any organisation that fosters, provides, or even advises women on abortion, is cut off from US aid. Thus, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), parastatals and even governmental bodies in developing countries, many of which depend on US aid, have had to preach abstinence only campaigns and limit family planning services to the conservative guidelines given to them. Only certain aspects of the HIV and AIDS pandemic could therefore be addressed with the aid that was provided. The thousands of women who are victims of sexual violence in developing countries annually have been left completely unsupported, their rights violated not only by rapists, but by health funding policy that does not provide the option of aborting unintended pregnancies, in line with the ‘pro-life’ approach. Ironically, the policy was introduced during a conference on women and development held in Mexico City. It was repealed in 1993 by Bill Clinton, but George W. Bush reinstated it 2001. How much damage has it caused over the last seven to eight years?

Despite the Bush administration’s so-called ‘pro-family’ approach to health funding, it has also cut off US$ 250 million in aid from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) since 2002. The UNFPA is the largest global provider of family planning, but lost much of its US aid following allegations that it was linked to abortion practices in China. The ‘pro-family’ approach has thus resulted in drastically reduced funding for developing countries, where some organisations continued to support safe abortion. While the Republican anti-abortion stance appeals to many Americans, it does not suit the African context, if only because of the high levels of sexual violence and low standards of healthcare that necessitate access to these kinds of services for women. Africa needs an approach to family planning and women’s reproductive rights that acknowledges realities such as sexual violence against women and girls by providing these victims with the opportunity to make decisions about their bodies and futures.

Pro-life, but not for women

Like a large number of other women in developing countries, African women usually live in societies that fail to openly condemn gender-based violence (GBV). Stories of the inadequate handling of rape cases by police are rife, as is evidence that men use rape as a weapon of war and a mechanism to control women in domestic settings. Consequently, expecting mothers may be carrying the child of a rapist or even of a family member, as incest is not considered unacceptable everywhere. These women are not impregnated with love, but through a patriarchal obsession with the control of women. Due to the nature of the HI-virus and abovementioned gender relations, women who are raped are likely to contract the virus. Thus, women who were raped and/or infected with HIV may have no desire, and often no financial resources, to care for the lives that are so forcefully imposed upon their bodies.

The pro-family approach to funding emphasises one side of a moral debate. It argues that unborn lives are important and alive, and that they should be preserved no matter what. If a woman is impregnated through rape or incest, she will therefore not have access to any funded health services other than those that care for growing foetuses, mothers and babies. These women have to carry, give birth to, raise and take responsibility for children they did not willingly conceive. In addition, they and their babies are now likely to also be infected with HIV. The ‘pro-life’ approach to health funding avoids the intellectual cleavage that exists in the human rights paradigm between the rights of the unborn and those of women, who usually have already been violated in various ways.

While it is true that the availability of abortion may encourage underage and unprotected sex, it is equally true that the narrow ‘pro-life’ and abstinence approaches have failed dismally to protect women in developing countries. Women are not only raped and infected with HIV, but forced to then devote their bodies and lives to raising the children that stem from the violations committed against them. A common consequence of this is that unsafe backstreet abortion operations flourish across the Africa continent, often leaving women vulnerable to excessive bleeding, infections and death. If that weren’t enough, these countless children have been born into settings of misery, where they ultimately suffer as their mothers had.

A welcome change

The International Planned Parenthood Federation estimates that the US$ 100 million in funding that was lost due to the ‘pro-life’ approach could have prevented 36 million unintended pregnancies and 15 million backstreet abortions. The lives of more than 80,000 women and 2.5 million children may have been saved. The repeal of the Republican stance on family planning funding requirements by President Obama will hopefully initiate a steady improvement in these statistics. Obama also recommitted his administration to increase funding to the UNFPA. "By resuming funding to UNFPA, the US will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV and AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries”, his repeal statement said.

Obama has also been making changes for the women of his own country. American women now have the right to sue for equal payment if they discover payment irregularities in the workplace. This right is embedded in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, signed by Obama on 29 January. Mrs. Lily Ledbetter, a former Goodyear employee, fought for reparation in court after she discovered that she had lost more than US$ 200,000 in salary and other benefits because her male counterparts had been earning far larger salaries for the entire time of her employment.

President Obama’s dedication to positive legal changes in favour of gender equality and women’s empowerment is like a fresh breeze through the repetitive and often hollow political discourses (and actions) on gender issues. Hopefully the positive repercussions of Obama’s decision in the US will spread out to touch African women’s lives as well.

The February edition of the Gender Issues in Africa Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence. For more information see

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