Global reproductive rights were already in crisis — COVID-19 will make it worse

Global reproductive rights were already in crisis — COVID-19 will make it worse
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Before COVID-19 ground life as we know it to a startling halt, the movement toward gender equality seemed to be at a major crossroads. We had just marked 25 years since the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where 179 countries joined in a first-of-its-kind consensus that individual sexual and reproductive rights are central to global progress. We were also rallying to mark 25 years since the iconic World Conference on Women in Beijing, where the world put forward what to this day is considered the most progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights.

We’ve come a long way in the fight for equality, but this progress remains fragile — 25 years later, the promises made in Cairo and Beijing are still not fulfilled, and it’s increasingly clear that the uncharted territory of COVID-19 and its aftermath will unravel what advances we have made.

Pandemic aside, women everywhere are not in control of their bodies, their lives, and their futures. A recent report from UNFPA, the UN agency dedicated to reproductive health, shows that even before COVID-19 surged, nearly half of women in 57 countries surveyed were unable to make their own decisions when it comes to their reproductive health and rights. This means not making our own choices about accessing health care or using contraception, or even being able to say no to sex with a husband or partner. In 40 percent of these countries, women’s decision-making power is stagnant or even regressing.

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Here in the United States, our leaders are not passive bystanders witnessing this degradation of rights; they are active participants. For the past three years, the U.S. administration — once a pioneer in supporting the health and rights of girls and women everywhere — has pulled out every stop in its effort to restrict these same rights for women around the world, from the reinstatement and unprecedented expansion of the global gag rule, to eliminating funding for UNFPA, to discrediting sexual and reproductive health and rights on the global political stage. The same efforts are underway right here at home.

Now, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the impact of these destructive policies and has made it clear that the U.S. stepping back from its investments in global health and rights is short-sighted and dangerous.

The global gag rule has cut off billions of dollars in support for the world’s most trusted, effective health care providers, weakening already-fragile health systems that are now under unprecedented stress. And organizations on the frontlines of pandemic response for girls and women, like UNFPA, are in a funding shortfall in the absence of U.S. support.

Meanwhile, policymakers are using the global COVID-19 crisis to further restrict fundamental health care access at home and abroad, which, layered on top of over-capacity health systems, is putting access to services like contraception and safe abortion even further out of reach.

Vulnerable girls and women will be the ones to bear this burden, now and in the years after the pandemic ends. The Guttmacher Institute predicts that even with a projected modest decline of 10 percent in access to care during the pandemic around the world, we could see an additional 49 million women with an unmet need for contraception, an additional 15 million unintended pregnancies, and a resulting spike in unsafe abortions, birth complications, and women and newborns dying.

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This is bad for women and bad for the world — and, it’s preventable. But reversing course requires immediate action. In the near term, 135 Members of Congress have called on the Administration to allow emergency exemptions to the global gag rule and the decision to halt funding for UNFPA, which would allow COVID-19 response funds to flow now to the most impactful health care providers.

Senate Democrats also called to restore funding to UNFPA and protect global access to sexual and reproductive health care in their international COVID-19 response bill. But after the crisis abates, Congress should act swiftly to permanently end the global gag rule and ensure UNFPA is fully funded in the long term. It should not take a worldwide pandemic for us to restore our position as a leader in global sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Despite the devastation the virus is causing in all corners of the globe, I’m heartened to see women’s leadership at this moment. We are hit harder by the pandemic, but we are also hitting back harder. Women make up 70 percent of the global health care workforce, putting us on the frontlines of the response. Our voices must be equally represented in leadership positions and in decision-making around the pandemic response, mitigation strategies, and research and development on the path toward treatments and a vaccine. 

We can postpone conferences and halt convenings. We can gather on video calls, and predict what the world will look like after this is all over. But we cannot put on pause the global effort to make reproductive health and rights a reality for all. If we do, we will emerge from this COVID-19 crisis to another crisis, this one of our own making.

Seema Jalan is the executive director of the Universal Access Project which works to empower girls and women by improving their access to reproductive health and family planning services globally.