International Women’s Day, March 8, is a day for celebrating and building a future of gender equality and empowerment for women and girls around the world.
But in terms of progress toward these goals, there isn’t much cause for celebration in many places within the U.S. On a recent national reproductive health and rights report card, 26 states earned a failing grade. And it’s not just on the state level that we are seeing attacks on reproductive rights. Key legislation that would expand access to reproductive health services internationally is languishing in Congress.
Ongoing political and cultural battles over sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) fail to reflect an underlying broad agreement. Few policymakers from either party would dispute the right of women and girls to be healthy, to be free from violence, and to participate equally in education.
Global gender equality and the empowerment of women aren’t partisan or controversial objectives; in fact, they’re universally agreed upon as Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals. But achieving them depends on accessing the full range of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, including abortion care — and plenty of politicians dispute women’s right to that.
It’s worth noting that fewer and fewer voters in the U.S. dispute abortion rights, however. Nearly two thirds of all Americans now say that abortion should be legal in almost all cases. Yet nearly three quarters of U.S. states restrict or ban abortion.
Those who treat SRHR issues as a political lightning rod are not only in the minority, however vocal, they’re also missing the bigger picture. They’re undermining the pursuit of gender equality and women’s empowerment, even if they happen to agree with these broader goals. Policymakers may support efforts to uphold the rights of women around the world to an education, to be part of the workforce, to participate in politics, and to have peace and security. But they will weaken those efforts if they fail to connect the dots of these overarching goals to SRHR, according to a new Population Institute report.
SRHR should not be viewed as a siloed, contentious public health issue; it’s a prerequisite for gender equality itself, the report finds. Yet barriers to family planning and SRH services are deeply embedded in U.S. policy, and it will take serious political and financial commitment to change that.
Now is the time. World population recently passed the 8 billion mark. Nearly 1.8 billion people are between the ages of 10–24, making it the largest generation of youth we have ever seen. According to the U.N., close to 90 percent of this generation lives in the Global South, and the number of individuals of reproductive age are only projected to grow. As the population grows, so does the need for SRHR funding to fulfill the right to access SRH services.
Yet U.S. funding for international family planning and reproductive health programming has remained flat at around $608 million for over a decade. Last year, the White House budget proposal raised that to $653 million, but even if Congress had adopted it, such a modest increase wouldn’t begin to cover the massive unmet need that has accrued.
Today, family planning access is so inadequate that 218 million women of reproductive age in the Global South who want to avoid pregnancy aren’t using modern contraception. To catch up, the FY24 federal budget should triple its allocation to $1.736 billion, the U.S.’s independently calculated “fair share” of what it would take to meet the overhanging need.
Beyond financial investment, the U.S. also needs to make sufficient political investment to create a more conducive environment for SRH services, so more people can access them. This includes ceasing to export restrictive and harmful U.S. policies such as the global gag rule, which prohibits any foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. assistance from using their own funds for abortion services, and the Helms Amendment, which prohibits the use of any U.S. foreign assistance funding for “abortion as a method of family planning.”
Such policies prevent the U.S. from supporting the full range of SRH services and should be repealed. Congress could stand up for comprehensive SRHR by passing the Global HER Act, which would repeal the global gag rule, and the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, which would repeal the Helms Amendment. It should also modify the Kemp-Kasten Amendment to ensure U.S. funds are not wrongfully withheld from the United Nations Population Fund, whose mandate is to address sexual and reproductive health needs worldwide.
Those would be key steps toward gender equality and empowerment, though they won’t happen immediately. For now, the Biden administration could send the message that it’s time to fully recognize the importance of international family planning and reproductive health services by fully funding them in its budget proposal. That would be a fitting way to observe International Women’s Day.