Population Matters

Stop the Retreat

March 31st, 2011

The world today is transfixed by the retreat of the Libyan rebels, but a far more momentous retreat is under way, and it does not bode well for the future of the world. It’s the retreat on women’s rights. 

Because so much progress has been made on gender equity in recent decades, it’s easy to assume that it will continue.   But progress in any area of human endeavor is seldom linear.  Reversals occur, sometimes with stunning speed.  And that may be happening today with respect to the rights and welfare of women in the world. 

Throughout much of human history women have been treated like second-class citizens or worse.  In good times and in bad, but particularly in bad times, women have often borne the brunt of any adversity.  The 20th century did much to change all that, and many of us would like to think that gender equality can be fully realized in the 21st century.   Gender equity, after all, is not just a matter of respect for the rights of all human beings; it is essential to human fulfillment.  Human potential will never be completely realized until women are fully empowered.

But like the Libyan rebels who presently find themselves outgunned by Gadhafi’s henchmen, women in many parts of the world today are losing in the face of formidable odds.  Many are victims of sexual assault, like the reporter in Egypt who was brutally and sexually assaulted by a gang of men in the streets of Cairo, or the estimated 8,000 women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were raped last year by marauding soldiers.

The New York Times Nick Kristof wrote yesterday about Hena, a 14-year old girl in Bangladesh who was reportedly gagged, beaten and raped by an older man in her village.  To pay for her ‘crime’ the local iman issued a fatwa pronouncing her guilty of adultery and sentenced her to 100 lashes in a public whipping.  She collapsed after 70 lashes, and subsequently died from her wounds. 

Hena’s story, as shocking as it is, is not unique.  In some parts of the world today, girls who are raped are presumed guilty of adultery, shunned by their families, and often beaten, if not killed.   If they are lucky enough to survive, and become pregnant as a result of the rape, they are forced to have the child and become the wife of the rapist. Some of these young girls later die in pregnancy, or suffer an obstetric fistula that leaves them incapable of controlling their bodily functions.

This past December, Congress came close to passing two bills aimed at curbing practices such as these.  The first was a bill directing the State Department to combat the practice of child marriage.   The second was a bill directing the U.S. to join with other nations in actively condemning and combating international violence against women.  Despite significant support in both Houses of Congress, both bills were blocked.  The latter, the International Violence against Women Act, failed because anti-abortion advocates insisted at the last moment, without any supporting logic or evidence, that the measure would support the provision of abortion services.

That was the old Congress.  In the new Congress that convened in January, things are much worse.   In this Congress, the rights and welfare of women are in full retreat.   Under the guise of austerity, some Members of Congress are seeking to wipe out government support for family planning and reproductive health services, both at home and abroad:  the health and welfare of women and their families be damned.

At home, Congress is on the verge of slashing funds for Title X family planning services, which has helped to provide family planning services to low-income women in this country for four decades.  The House, in fact, has passed a bill that would eliminate all funding.  

At the same time, House appropriators are seeking to slash funding for international family planning assistance by over $200 million.  So what does that mean for poor women in developing countries?  The

Guttmacher Institute estimates that every $100 million decrease would result in: 

  • 5,000 more maternal deaths;
  • six million fewer women and couples receiving contraceptive services and supplies;
  • 1.9 million more unintended pregnancies;
  • 800,000 more abortions (of which 600,000 would be unsafe);
  • 600,000 more years of healthy life (DALYs) lost; and
  • 23,000 more children losing their mothers. 

Meanwhile back at home, abortion opponents are looking at ways to further restrict any funding of abortion services.  Earlier this year, Rep. Chris Smith attempted, unsuccessfully, to narrow the definition of rape used in the Hyde Amendment (which restricts the use of federal funds for abortion) by restricting it to “forcible” rape.  In Georgia, a state legislator state recently introduced a bill that would make having a miscarriage a capital offense unless the mother can irrefutably prove that there was “no human involvement whatsoever in the causation of such an event.”

Around the world, the rights and welfare of women are under assault.  And it’s not just in developing countries like Afghanistan and Bangladesh.  Even in the U.S. , the cause of women’s rights is in retreat.

It’s time to stop the retreat. 

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

*Reposted from Huffington Post

Would You Like a Side of Preaching With That?

March 24th, 2011

According to a new law signed by the Governor of South Dakota yesterday and going into effect July 1, women now have to wait 72 hours before they can get an abortion.  This three day waiting period will be the longest in the country and unfortunately it isn’t even the most egregious part of the new law. The worst part requires that women get counseling from “crisis pregnancy centers” before they can have an abortion. While many states require counseling, South Dakota will be the first state to require counseling from “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are often set up to look like women’s health clinics, but, in reality, oppose abortion and work to convince women not to have abortions.

These new requirements will make it an already difficult personal decision even harder. While at first glance a three day wait may seem little more than an inconvenience, in South Dakota it is a real obstacle, because it only has one clinic that provides non-emergency abortions. Meaning that some women have to take time off from work or school to drive hours to get to the clinic, and these women will be forced to take off additional time and make the same drive again three days later. Not everyone has the ability to take off that much time or make that long of a drive twice, making it much more complicated for women to gain access to a legal medical procedure.

However, if a woman is able to take the time off and get to the one clinic in the state; she is now forced to get counseling from a “crisis pregnancy center.”  They frequently have a religious affiliation and are often staffed with volunteers who do not have medical training. Their main goal is to discourage women from getting an abortion. Women who visit these crisis pregnancy centers are often given incorrect information exaggerating the risks of abortion. Women who are already upset and making a difficult decision will be forced to sit and listen to information meant to scare them into changing their mind.

The stated purpose of this new law is to reduce abortions, but is harassing women who have unplanned pregnancies really the best way to accomplish this? No! The best way to reduce the abortion rate is to make sure that women have access to family planning so that they can prevent getting pregnant in the first place.

Unfortunately the same people that are pushing laws like the South Dakota law are also pushing to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and Title X. Title X is the federal family planning program that gives low-income women access to birth control, cervical and breast cancer screenings, and testing for STIs including HIV.  The cuts in Title X and the defunding of Planned Parenthood will leave many women without the ability to access reproductive health services. Planned Parenthood alone serves 1 in 5 women at some point during their lives.

If low-income and young women cannot access family planning services and information the abortion rate will climb, whether or not there’s a waiting period.  In truth, South Dakota’s new law is part of a much larger campaign of intimidation aimed at depriving women of the right to control their own fertility.  Earlier this year in South Dakota, a legislative committee seriously debated a proposed bill that would, in effect, define the provision of abortion services as homicide. In Georgia, a state representative recently introduced a bill that would make having a miscarriage a capital offense unless the mother can irrefutably prove that there was “no human involvement whatsoever in the causation of such an event.”  It’s no wonder that women’s groups are calling these efforts a “war on women.”  It is.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

World Lack of Water Day

March 22nd, 2011

Today is World Water Day, an international observance that grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) that was held in Rio de Janeiro.

More than at any time since the Rio Conference, World Water Day this year is more cause for concern than celebration. For while there have been many advances in the past two decades, those advances have not kept up with the world’s ever surging demand for fresh water…or the shrinking supplies. 

Water is not the kind of story that ordinarily makes national headlines, but increasingly it’s the real story behind many of those headlines, whether its turmoil in Yemen, riots in Syria, or the emerging food crisis.  

Water scarcity and the growing lack of clean water are aggravating severe poverty, imperiling health, and pushing many countries to the brink of hunger.  And the problem is far from peaking.  With continued population growth,  increased drought due to climate change, the growing demand of agriculture, the depletion of underground aquifers, and the dramatic shrinkage of many lakes and rivers, relieving water scarcity is an uphill, if not impossible task.

Yemen, whose population is one of the fastest growing on the planet, will effectively run out of water in a decade or so.  Whatever happens to the Saleh regime in the coming weeks and months, the future rulers of Yemen will face an almost impossible task. 

The same is true of Syria, where severe rioting has broken out in recent days.  With a still growing population and a persistent draught, Syria faces a challenge that would daunt the most democratic of regimes.  In Eastern Syria, a five-year drought has uprooted over a million people.   Dr. Josef Olmert at American University gave this assessment in the Huffington Post.

Syria is on the verge of a catastrophic water crisis, caused by years of drought and total neglect by the government of the water sources. Over a million starving and thirsty peasants, mainly Kurds from the North-east of Syria, but also Sunnis from the Hauran and Druze from the neighboring Jabal regio were forced to abandon their traditional way of life and migrated to the metropolitan areas, particularly the Capital, Damascus. This is a time-bomb that is waiting to explode, and the Hauran riots are just the beginning. The traditionally belligerent Kurdish population of the Jzeera region are next in line, and possibly also the urban Kurdish population of Damascus, Aleppo and Hammah.

But it’s not just Syria, the entire Middle East is a water crisis waiting to happen…with no relief in sight.  Sundeep Waslekar, writing for Forbes India, gave this blunt assessment yesterday:

Be it the Jordan River, Yarmouk, Lake Kinneret or the Dead Sea itself, water has depleted significantly over the last few decades. Rivers Jordan and Yarmouk have lost 90 percent of their water in the last 50 years. If this trend continues, large parts of the Middle East will simply have no water by the next decade. Half of Syria will become a desert in two or three decades..

When that happens, agriculture in these parts will be severely restricted. The region will face an unprecedented food crisis. Now one could say that Middle East could simply import food from India or China. But water tables there are going down too. Food production could fall everywhere from China to India to Pakistan to Syria to Egypt. This is no longer a storm that is some distance away. The storm has crossed the horizon. And the Middle East and North Africa will face political uncertainty till then and then they’ll be hit by this food crisis and that’s when destabilisation will start. They are entering an era of inconclusive uncertainty.

And it’s not just the Middle East, water scarcity afflicts a large number of developing countries with civil unrest and growing populations, including Haiti, Pakistan, and Sudan. Larisa Epatko of the PBS Newshour offered an overview of these and other countries today.  It’s well worth a view.

It’s not that there aren’t things that can be done to remedy water scarcity.  Yemeni farmers could quit growing khat, a popular narcotic that accounts for a lot of the existing water demand in that country.  Syria could improve its dreadful water management practices.  And expanded use of drip irrigation systems in many countries could reduce agriculture’s claim on water resources.  But if experience is any indicator, the fact that something could be done is no guarantee that it will be done.  In the meantime, water demand continues to grow and water supply continues to shrink. 

Behind all the headlines about Japan and the brewing trouble in the Middle East is a story that may be the biggest story of the 21st century.  It’s a pity that even on World Water Day, the issue of water scarcity still doesn’t get much attention.  But someday, not many World Water Days from now, it will.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

The War on Women

March 8th, 2011

Today is the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s day and it should be an opportunity to celebrate how far women have come in the last 100 years.   We should  remember that on the first International Women’s Day women in most countries around the world, including the United States, could not vote and employers often refused to hire someone just because she was a woman. We have come so far since 1911. Unfortunately on this 100th International Women’s Day I am having a hard time thinking about all of the successes that we have seen in the last 100 years because right now all I can see is that the newly-elected U.S. House of Representatives appears to have declared a war on women.

The House leadership has stated that cutting the budget was their number one priority, however,  the House-passed budget shows that cuts aren’t as important, perhaps, as making ideological policy. The House budget appears to be the opening salvo in a broader war on women.

The House-passed budget would defund Planned Parenthood and eliminate all Title X funding. Title X is the federal family planning program that gives  low-income women access to birth control, cervical and breast cancer screenings, and testing for STIs including HIV.  The cuts in Title X and the defunding of Planned Parenthood will leave many women without the ability to access reproductive health services. Planned Parenthood alone serves 1 in 5 women at some point during their lives. Without this resource where will women turn? The Guttmacher Institute estimates that for every dollar invested in Title X for birth control taxpayers save just under $4 in Medicaid costs for mother and baby just in the first year. What will be the cost to women for not having access to birth control, early cervical and breast cancer screenings, or STI and HIV testing?

On top of this the House budget will also cut essential services to low income women who decide to have children. The bill will cut $50 million from programs that provide prenatal health care to 2.5 million low income women and health care to 31 million children annually. It also cuts the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (also known as WIC) by 10%. This is a successful program that helps ensure healthier mothers and infants by providing care to low income women, new mothers and infants. Millions of women and infants rely on this program to ensure they are healthy. Where are these women going to turn to for help?

This attack on women isn’t only aimed at women in the U.S., but also women around the world.  The House-passed budget would also slash funding for international family planning and reproductive health care at a time when it is imperative that we increase our support. Right now there are 215 million women in the world who would like to avoid a pregnancy but do not have access to modern contraceptives. Providing those women with modern contraceptives helps combat maternal mortality, gives women control over their lives, and fights poverty.

The House budget would also reinstate the “global gag rule” which prevents the U.S. from funding any group internationally that even talks about abortion, severely hurting family planning groups that work overseas.

While the House leadership is talking about cutting the budget they need to understand that cutting because every dollar spent on international family planning more than pays for itself in terms of reduced costs for health care and other social services.  Meaning that by reducing the amount of money going to family planning governments would need more money to cover health and education costs.

While  the Senate will reject many of these proposed changes, conservatives and tea party supporters have made it  clear that they will use any vehicle to move forward their war on women. It is imperative that everyone who is outraged by this attack make their voice heard. So I am celebrating this 100th International Women’s Day by making my voice heard and telling Congress that I support women and women’s reproductive health in the U.S. and abroad.

To show your support for U.S. programs you can sign Planned Parenthood’s open letter to Congress telling Congress that we will fight to make sure women have access to the vital services that are provided by Planned Parenthood: http://www.istandwithplannedparenthood.com.

To show your support for international family planning services, you can sign the Million for a Billion petition, which asks Congress to make sure women internationally have access to family planning by increasing U.S. funding for family planning and reproductive health programs to $1Billion: http://www.millionforabillion.com.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

International Women’s Day: Hold the Champagne

March 8th, 2011

For years now, March 8, International Women’s Day, has been a cause for celebration.  And with this year being the Global Centenary Year, there’s special cause for celebration.  But, unfortunately, there’s more cause for concern this year than celebration.

A year ago, the United States was in a position of global leadership on women’s issues.  President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were making the empowerment of women a defining issue in U.S. foreign policy, and the health and welfare of girls and women was seen as central to the fortunes of the developing world.

What a difference a year makes.  President Obama and Secretary Clinton have not relented, but Congress—or at least the U.S. House of Representatives—is in full retreat.  Budget hawks, in the name of deficit reduction, have proposed eliminating Title X funding for U.S. family planning assistance and, at the same time, slashing U.S. support for international family planning and reproductive health services.   And family planning is not the only budget target.  A wide variety of programs aimed at protecting the health of women and children could end up taking over-sized hits.  When it comes to deficit reduction, apparently the new mantra is “Women and children, first.”

The U.S. and the world are awash with problems, but there is no problem that I can think of—including debt accumulation—that would be ameliorated by denying women access to contraceptives and reproductive health services.  You don’t make the world a better place by endangering the lives of women or diminishing their ability to prevent unwanted or unintended pregnancies.  And you certainly don’t reduce the burden to be borne by future generations by denying women access to health care.

Rather than celebrating, supporters of women’s rights should be redoubling their efforts.  As part of its poverty-fighting Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the United Nations has set 2015 at the target year for achieving universal access to family planning and other reproductive health services.  But that target will not be reached if the U.S. and other donor nations fail to deliver on their promises.

An estimated 215 million women in the developing world want to avoid a pregnancy, but are not currently using a modern method of birth control.  Providing family planning services and information to them would cost an additional $3.6 billion a year.  In the scale of global finance that’s small change, but the benefits that would flow from it are truly enormous.  Expanding family planning services to 215 million women would empower women, dramatically reduce maternal and infant mortality rates, keep girls in school longer, improve food security in food-dependent countries, and help to break the cycle of poverty that now afflicts many developing nations.  In many areas of the world, it would also reduce environmental stress, and ease concerns about water scarcity.

There’s a lot at stake here. That’s why family planning advocates recently launched the “Million for a Billion” petition campaign to build donor nation support for an increase in international family planning assistance.  This international Women’s Day, we should all take a moment to tell Congress and world leaders that there is no excuse for retreating on the health, welfare, and rights of women.  The champagne can come later.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Jane Roberts Takes on the U.S. House

March 1st, 2011

Jane Roberts, the co-founder of 34 Million Friends of UNFPA, wrote a wonderful blog for RH Reality Check today about the testimony that she would like to give to the U.S. House of Representatives on the effort to defund the United Nations Population Fund

Years ago, when Congress voted to defund UNFPA, Jane helped lead a campaign to collect small donations to help make up the difference.  Thanks to Jane’s vision and tenacity, it was a tremendous success.  While she didn’t fill the $34 million gap, she did manage to collect a lot of donations and raise a lot of political support for UNFPA along the way.  In 2003 she was one of the Women of the Year for MS Magazine, in 2004 one of the 21 Leaders of the 21st Century for Women’s eNews and in 2005, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize with the 1000 Peace Women Project under the auspices of UNESCO in Bern, Switzerland.

Now, with a Congressional battle looming over UNFPA’s funding, she’s back in the arena again, and in her inimitable and impact way, her “fantasy” testimony dissects the hypocrisy of UNFPA’s opponents and carefully restates the many reasons why UNFPA’s funding needs to be renewed.  Not surprisingly, her testimony starts in with [in her own words] a “bang”:

Quite honestly, your vote to disallow a U.S. allocation to the United Nations Population Fund shows your utter lack of discernment, your ignorance about the function of UNFPA, and your willingness to believe the lies of Chris Smith over the consensus in the world that women’s health, education, and human rights are at the core of any chance in the future for people, the planet and peace.

You should take a moment to read her post in its entirety.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President