Trump’s United Nation’s cuts target women in crisis
© Alissa Everett/Humanity United

Women’s rights advocates around the world have been concerned for months that the Trump administration would cut American funds for basic health services that the girls and women who need help the most rely on. 

On April 4, the US State Department blocked all funds to the United Nations Population Fund, which provides life saving support, including for pregnant women, in humanitarian crises. With high stakes but no clear evidence, the US has decided that UNFPA is complicit in abuses in China. It's fair to ask about how UNFPA fights coercive policies in China, but women and girls worldwide shouldn't be made to pay the cost.

ADVERTISEMENT
The US, one of the agency’s largest donors, already keeps its money out of its China program. So why such a heavy punishment for the agency, and at a time of deepening humanitarian crisis around the world? The move only reinforces the current US administration’s apparent disregard for the health of women and girls, and its willful ignorance about the critical support services provided. They will probably never meet the freezing cold pregnant refugees in Greece, women displaced in Iraq as they flee the Islamic State, or rape survivors stuck in overcrowded camps in South Sudan.

 

The need for women’s health care—from family planning to maternity care and more--does not simply disappear because people are in terrible trouble. 

As a women’s rights emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch, I have met survivors of sexual violence and women faced with disaster in many countries where the agency operates. Whether these women get the support they need during war or crisis can make all the difference to their very survival. UNFPA, together with thousands of national groups and a host of international aid agencies, is part of the front line of aiding women and girls suffering in conflict and humanitarian disasters around the globe, helping ensure some of their basic rights are met.

It is the Population Fund’s job to make sure that pregnant women and girls get care and a safe birth when the world falls apart around them. Governments are supposed to provide these services. But too often the officials are unsympathetic to women’s needs, or promote policies that try to control women instead of allowing them to control when or who they marry, have children, or even if their genitals are cut.

Sometimes governments are too involved in a conflict or emergency or simply don’t care. Sometimes it is the government’s own soldiers who are burning villages and raping women and girls. These governments, or armed groups, are unlikely to move cash away from weapons to basic care for women, who have little influence on politics or how wars are fought. 

The UN Population Fund is an important part of an international support network, helping to provide minimum standards for reproductive care in emergencies. With the dramatic increase in refugees from Africa and the Middle East, it takes a well-funded and dedicated UN, and agencies like UNFPA to ensure that women’s health needs, and basic rights, are not lost in general crisis.

The global women’s rights movement and aid organizations have brought about important changes, many of which the United States, with other wealthy countries that respect human rights, have funded through the United Nations. Women and girls in humanitarian crises are much more likely now, if they can reach safety, to find safe maternity care, emergency post-rape care, mental health care and contraception. 

UNFPA also provides kits that can be dispatched to emergencies, with the medicines and equipment needed by aid agencies in hard-to-reach places. One such place is Yei in South Sudan, where I interviewed local nongovernmental organization workers who were distributing the kits when sexual violence was rife in mid-2016. That meant a woman or girl could get medicine to help prevent HIV infection after suffering sexual violence or exploitation. 

The population Fund has also done important work, with its partners, to cure obstetric fistula, a birth injury that can ruin a woman’s life, and to end female genital mutilation. US governments over the years have subjected the fund to restrictions, often based on false accusations about the care it provides, especially around abortion.

Actually, the agency does not support or provide abortion as a method of family planning anywhere it works. But the caution of agency officials, afraid of falling afoul of US restrictions has been detrimental to the right of women and girls to be able to get safe abortions. 

But a lot more is at stake here – including the lives of women and girls. Reallocating funds away from the UN Population Fund will help dismantle assistance to survivors of sexual violence and pregnant women, and basic health care for all women in crisis. 

Skye Wheeler is the emergencies women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.