Testing the power of the global women's movement

Guaranteeing fertility control to every woman on the planet is a new litmus test for the power of the global women’s movement. Fertility control has never been an agenda where the good sense of governments has been enough. Most national parliaments have consistently failed to prioritize fertility control even at the expense of their own economic and social development. That may be changing in some parts of the world, but it is not changing fast enough and progress has too often proven fragile.

Witness the latest changes to the so-called “Global Gag Rule”. This is not the typical yo-yoing between alternating Republican and Democratic administrations of the US Government. This time, the rule stating that US foreign aid cannot fund organizations that provide abortion information or services has been dramatically expanded to cover all US health aid. The last time the old version of the rule was reinstated, abortion rates more than doubled in some African countries (Bendavid et al, 2011). How high might  abortion rates go under the new rule?

How should the global women’s movement respond this time around?

Advocate and wait for a change in the US administration while deaths from unsafe abortion spike? Stand on the sidelines while hundreds of millions of women can’t get modern contraception and remain at higher risk of poverty and even death? Watch as country after country fall further off track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because so many of their citizens can’t safeguard their own reproductive health? After all, how can a government reduce deaths in pregnancy and childbirth (SDG 3.1) when deaths from unsafe abortion have just doubled?

No, this time around the global women’s movement is powerful enough to do things differently. The marches that brought five million women, men, and children to streets on every continent in January 2017 have inspired a new confidence and opened up new possibilities for influence. Are we witnessing the stirrings of a new global political movement offering a very broad platform for progress, prosperity, and peace? One that is not aligned with the old right/left political divide or with any particular government?  How can this movement be harnessed to neutralize the “Global Gag Rule” and to protect women in the most adversely affected countries from its effects?

Here are some ideas:

1. First, the vast network of groups that now make up the global women’s movement must find ever more compelling ways of cooperating on a massive scale to increase access to contraception and safe abortion.

The movement needs to support local leaders in the countries where women have the most at stake to relentlessly keep fertility control on the agendas of the governments of Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Angola in Africa; and India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia in Asia.

If outside financial help is needed, the movement should keep working with the 57 nations and private foundations that pledged $US200 million in the Dutch Government-initiated “She Decides” campaign, followed days later by the Canadian Government pledge of $US650 million, a doubling of their current level of investment in reproductive health.

2. Second, the global women’s movement should champion new technologies and non-traditional allies that can bypass government bottlenecks and get information, products, and services directly to the women most at risk. The hundreds of millions of women in the world who want to use modern contraception but who can’t get it represent one of the largest, under-served markets in the world.

Pharmaceutical companies are producing ever better contraceptive products – longer lasting and with fewer side-effects – while for-profit and not-for-profit startups like nurx, The Pill Club, Lemonaid Health, Women on Web, and Muso Health are finding ways to deliver contraception and safe abortion right to a woman’s doorstep. The vast private sector is still a relatively untapped source in the fight for fertility control.

3. Third, the global women’s movement should allocate the vast majority of its resources – financial, time, and talent – to getting women into at least half of all decision-making roles in the institutions that influence women’s health, education, and labor market participation. This means going after positions of the highest influence and making sure there is a pipeline of stellar women to run/apply.

The movement needs to play a major role in the establishment of hundreds of organizations supporting women to run for political office and corporate leadership in every region of the world. 50% women leaders across governments, business and civil society is THE key to securing the global transformation the women’s movement has always sought.

As for restricting access to safe abortion and contraception, we know how that story ends. Have we forgotten Romania? When women are forced to become mothers, when abortion is outlawed and contraception impossible to get, countries can say goodbye to a prosperous and stable future. Nine out of every ten women who die from unsafe abortion live in Africa or Asia. Does the world really need to erect yet another barrier to hold these women back?

But no amount of good arguments or solid evidence will persuade away the Global Gag Rule. And rather than spend the next eight years fighting it, the global women’s movement now has the power to run right over it. Will it?

Updated September 2021