What does a congressperson from Ohio have in common with a 16 year-old sex worker in Cambodia? They’re both symbols of the perverse political stalemate in Washington, D.C., that threatens to set back the struggle for women’s equality around the world.
The year that girl was born, a conference of world leaders vowed to eliminate many of the worst forms of gender oppression. Last week, officials and civil society groups convened again at the United Nations to take stock of all the ways the international community has fallen short of its promises on women’s health, education and political and economic empowerment. And on Capitol Hill, the GOP is pushing budget cuts that would make sure the promise remains broken.
It’s not a coincidence that conservatives in Congress are fighting a two front war on women: attacking women’s rights across the Global South and killing Roe v. Wade at home. Conservatives are exploiting the budget process to defund Title X, the primary federal funding vehicle for family planning reproductive health services for women. Cutting these funds would leave many poor women with no local clinic or social service agency to get the guidance they need to make informed choices about sex and pregnancy.
The effort is backed by a slew of state and federal proposals to restrict access to abortion by sadistically redefining "rape" and "fetus" to criminalize women and restrict medical providers. Plus the perennial smear campaigns against Planned Parenthood clinics.
It’s on this battlefield that Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio faced off with impoverished teenage girls everywhere by proposing to wipe out funds for international family planning programs.
The proposed cutbacks would deeply hinder efforts to provide women with social supports and medical resources for negotiating sexuality, pregnancy and related health risks. The ripple effects of family planning assistance range far and wide in developing economies. Women who have no choice in when they have children also have no control over their economic destinies, cannot pursue their educational aspirations, and are restricted in their ability to challenge authority–whether in the form of standing up to an abusive husband at home or running for parliament.
Often overlooked is the critical link between maternal health and HIV/AIDS prevention. Family planning services are often the initial point of contact between impoverished women and any form of regular health care. Strong birth control programs help HIV-infected women avoid unwanted pregnancy, reduce mortality risks among infected mothers, and prevent HIV transmission to newborn babies.
Population Action International says that the U.S. support for family planning and reproductive health helps mitigate the worst effects of food crises, environmental degradation, military conflict, and sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless, over the past half generation:
U.S. support for international [family planning and reproductive health] has historically been underfunded. The FY 2010 funding level of $648.5 million represents nearly a 25 percent cut (when adjusted for inflation) from what the U.S. spent on these programs in 1995.
Moreover, since 1995 the number of women in the developing world of reproductive age has increased by more than 344 million, thus increasing the need and demand for family planning.
The unmet needs those numbers represent will expand into full-blown crisis under the FY2011 budget resolution Congress is finalizing, a so-called negotiation that is in turn a dress rehearsal for the FY2012 budget debate. Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey noted in the Congressional Record:
According to Population Action International, cutting this funding would result in: 7.8 million more unintended pregnancies; 3.7 million more abortions; 87,000 additional newborn deaths; and 12,000 additional maternal deaths.
If anti-choice conservatives get their way in the budget process, they’ll also reinstate the global gag rule, which restricts U.S. funds from being used for family planning clinics. These funds do not, contrary to right-wing propaganda, directly support abortion in foreign countries. Cutting them off simply cuts off many poor women’s access to all health care.
The sad irony is that anti-abortion lawmakers should, in theory, be cheering on global family planning support. If fully funded, it would not only save the lives of some 250,000 women at risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth, but also lead to 14.5 million fewer abortions, according to Population Action. Of course, as Jodi Jacobson points out at RH Reality Check, "pro-lifers" in fact care little about the lives of women and children, especially the invisible poor whose lives count for less than a few swing votes in purple districts.
President Obama’s budget proposal for 2012 includes a modest boost for family planning funds and other global health programs. But it doesn’t come near meeting women’s total unmet needs, and will face butchery as it wends through the GOP’s budget gauntlet.
All of the tools that women gained over the 20th century to assert sovereignty over their bodies–contraception, abortion, sex education–are getting buried as the U.S. retrenches from its human rights commitments to women at home and abroad.
And so, as the 1995 Beijing Declaration nears its sweet sixteen, a bitter, wrenching power struggle is being waged over the backs of the world’s most disenfranchised women. The latest international data from the Guttmacher Institute illustrate the intersection of education, contraception and health: Among women with less than seven years of schooling in those countries, the estimated unmet need for contraception has reached 28 percent in Bolivia, 31 percent in Cambodia, and 36 percent in Lesotho. Not surprisingly, among women aged 15 to 49, about 20 percent of births in Cambodia and 40 percent of births in Lesotho and Bolivia were reported to be "unwanted." The United Nations reports that HIV risk is highest among women and girls with limited access to education and those suffering forms of gender oppression, including rape, early marriage, and childcare burdens.
While the (largely male, white and middle-aged) Congress dithers on spending cuts that amount to a negligible fraction of the country’s overall deficit, women face at least another year of deferred promises and crippled hopes. So that Cambodian girl will turn 16 this year, her life spanning the arc of progress that women have seen since Beijing. But the significance of the milestone will likely be lost on her, now that she’s left school to work, given birth to a child she doesn’t know how to feed and clothe, and learned too late that she’s infected with a deadly virus. And likewise, her struggle will never cross the mind of a congressperson from Ohio as he casts his budget vote, unmoved by the fact that his political calculations have just sealed her fate.