As the world marks International Women’s Day on March 8, the United States is poised to reassert progressive leadership on a wide range of global sexual and reproductive health issues.

The Obama administration has already laid the groundwork for better protecting women’s health globally by rescinding the anti–family planning “global gag rule,” pledging to restore financial support for the United Nations Population Fund and committing the United States to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

The fact remains, however, that U.S. policy in these areas has lagged badly over the past decade. Other countries and regions have forged ahead to promote the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women across the developing world, with European countries in particular moving in to fill the leadership void. The United States has much work to do in order to catch up with many of its Western European peers and reassert a leadership role.

There are several ways that the Obama administration, assisted by a supportive congressional leadership, can begin to reestablish the country’s global leadership:

Increase foreign aid to international family planning programs. U.S. advocates have been calling for U.S. family planning assistance to be doubled, to at least $1 billion annually. A recently released report by five former directors of the Population and Reproductive Health Program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) goes even further, recommending that funding for USAID’s population budget be set at $1.2 billion—and raised to $1.5 billion by fiscal year 2014.

Strongly support other development programs. Among programs that the United States should help strengthen are those that ensure the promotion of sexual and reproductive health beyond family planning, address girls’ and adult women’s education and secure women’s access to vocational training and financial credit.

Look at the U.S. global health effort as a whole. HIV/AIDS programs currently claim an extremely high proportion of all resources allocated to U.S. global health efforts. Particularly in difficult economic times, it will be a challenge to increase funding for other critical health portfolios, which is necessary to ensure an effective overall U.S. global health strategy that in turn combats poverty and promotes sustainable development worldwide.

Reexamine restrictive policies. Even a more progressive Congress is unlikely to repeal the 1973 Helms Amendment, which bans U.S. funding for most abortion services abroad. However, at least some of the ban’s harmful effects on women in developing countries who obtain unsafe abortions could be alleviated by revising guidance to the field to highlight activities that are permissible under the law.

Advocate strongly at the international level. Issues of sexual and reproductive health are at risk of being lost among concerns of financial crisis and worsening poverty in both developing and developed countries. It is imperative that the United States remind other countries of the integral relationship between reproductive health and economic development at the household, community and country level, and fight to keep these issues on the world’s agenda at major international conferences this year and in 2010.

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Restoring U.S. leadership in global sexual and reproductive health policy

The rationale for increasing U.S. family planning assistance

The Obama administration’s recent actions on the global gag rule and UNFPA