As the global women and girls’ rights movement SheDecides gains momentum across the world after little more than a year since it began, campaigners are setting their sights on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.
They are intent on spreading the SheDecides message not only to overcome societal ills, but also to help reduce the region’s high rates of maternal mortality and HIV.
SheDecides was created in response to US President Donald Trump’s reinstatement and dramatic expansion of the Mexico City Policy – better known as the global gag rule – in January last year.
The rule prevents nongovernmental organisations outside the US that provide or promote safe abortions, or offer legal advice or counselling in this regard, from receiving money from the US government.
The consequence of this, according to the movement, has been devastating for the rights of women and girls, translating to funding cuts of at least $8.8 billion (R131 billion) by the US Global Health Initiative.
This week, Robin Gorna – a prominent feminist, activist and co-leader of SheDecides – spoke to City Press about the movement and its vision for the SADC.
“We were created very much in response to what’s now known as the gag rule, when President Trump reintroduced it soon after his inauguration. It is a normal thing for US Republican presidents to do, as religious rights play a critical role in electing the Republican Party. But this time around, what Trump did was dramatically expand the rule,” Gorna explained.
“Previously, it would cover about $650 million of US global health development systems support for women and girls, but this time around, he expanded it in such a way that it covered all global health systems (including HIV/Aids, TB, family planning and reproductive health programmes, and maternal health programmes) to the sum total of about $8.8 billion. The damage, particularly to the southern African region, is huge because it covers funding that NGOs received for their work on HIV, for example.”
Ever since it was first implemented – in 1984, under former president Ronald Reagan – the global gag rule has been a fixture of every Republican administration in the US. Thus, Trump’s action came as no surprise. What was surprising, though, was his announcing a major expansion of the rule and renaming it the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy – over and above applying past restrictions.
Soon after, Lilianne Ploumen – who was the Netherlands’ minister for foreign trade and international development at the time – together with her counterparts in the governments of Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, launched SheDecides as a global initiative to defend those rights cancelled by the US administration.
At their pledging conference in March last year, they were able to raise $250 million. According to Gorna, the figure has since risen to $450 million.
“The movement had expanded dramatically over one year. At the pledging conference in Belgium last year, 50 countries attended. Most of the ministers were from Europe and Canada,” she said.
“But this year, on March 2, an event in Pretoria – hosted jointly by Denmark’s minister for development cooperation, Ulla Tørnæs, and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi – brought together 250 ministers, parliamentarians and young people from the southern Africa region.”
Motsoaledi supported the movement at the UN General Assembly last year, pledging to bring its vision to the SADC region.
Earlier this year, he reportedly called on leaders in government, business, the not-for-profit sector and civil society worldwide to help encourage health ministers in the SADC region to adopt the new SheDecides Scorecard at the next SADC health ministers’ meeting, which will be chaired by Namibia in November.
“We are optimistic that the scorecard will be an initiative that will be a game changer for the region and we are incredibly excited about it because if we can change the social norms of society in this region, the impact will be huge,” said Gorna.
“The scorecard can be used by countries in the SADC, including South Africa, to check if they are taking the steps necessary towards realising the rights and health of adolescent girls and women. There are high rates of maternal mortality in this region as well as HIV, and that’s all to do with women and girls not having their rights protected and not having the access to services they so desperately need.”
Thuthukile Mbatha, a researcher at rights group Section 27, added that joining the movement was especially important for a country such as South Africa, particularly as gender-based violence was so rife – a symptom of social ills that still needed to be addressed.
“The rights of women to decide what they want to do with their bodies has always been seen to be vested in men,” said Mbatha. “For example, in 2018 you still find older men abducting young girls for forced marriages. And you find young boys sexually visualising young girls when they are wearing shorts or revealing clothes, saying they are asking for rape.
“A movement like SheDecides will force us as a country to reflect on how far we have come in trying to restore power to women, enabling them to make decisions about their lives and their bodies, and to take action.”
Over the past year, Gorna said, the movement tried to do an overall assessment of the gag rule, looking at its financial impact. “We do not have a firm number as the impact is so pernicious … NGOs are being asked to sign the rule, which means they continue receiving the money but cannot provide information about abortion to anyone.
“It is slightly different in South Africa because you have this protected in your Constitution. So, if a doctor or nurse wishes to provide information for an abortion to a woman, they have to abide by the Constitution and not by a US policy. But in other parts of the region, some NGOs are so frightened by the pressure of the rule that perhaps they overreact and overinterpret what they have to do,” she explained.
Still, South Africa has its challenges.
Mbatha said: “Implementation and proper budgeting for sexual and reproductive health services have been lacking. What’s outlined in policies and in people’s lived experiences are usually in contradiction.
“Young women, and women in general, still struggle to access certain services, such as abortions, due to lack of services. At those facilities that do offer services, you find that the nurse who is qualified to perform an abortion objects to doing so, based on personal beliefs. Recently, there have been reports of contraceptive stock-outs, which, again, is a total violation of these rights.”
Gorna added that the rule also exposed just how little money was going to reproductive rights and sexual rights, as well as programmes for women and girls.
TALK TO US
Is enough being done to provide access to free sexual and reproductive health services?
SMS us on 35697 using the keyword DECIDE and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50. By participating, you agree to receive occasional marketing material