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    Women’s Reproductive Freedom Ensures Our Survival, Kavita Ramdas Explains Why

    Kavita N. Ramdas  Credit:Global Fund for Women

    Kavita N. Ramdas Credit: Global Fund for Women

    On the occasion of the speech on women’s reproductive rights given on 8 January by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the State Department, IPS published an op-ed by Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women.

    The Global Fund for Women (GFW) is the world’s largest women’s foundation dedicated to advancing the rights of women, working with women’s groups in 161 countries.

    Supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund, GFW is helping the work of grass roots women-led civil society organisations in Asia. Within its MDG3 programme of work, IPS is partnering with GFW and other MDG3 Fund co-grantees organisations committed to women’s empowerment to strengthen the visibility of their own work.

    For a more general analysis of the new thrust of US development policy, read a related story here.

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    SPECIAL OP-ED: Why Women’s Reproductive Freedom Ensures Our Survival
    By Kavita N. Ramdas*

    SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 8, 2010 (IPS) – Fifteen years ago in Beijing, then first lady, Hillary Clinton, stated firmly, “Women’s rights are human rights.” Today, after eight years of non-existent U.S. support for women’s reproductive rights, Secretary of State Clinton is reviving women’s hopes around the globe by affirming the Obama Administration’s support for the International Conference on Population and Development Action Plan.

    This historic agreement, signed by 180 nations in Cairo in 1994, outlined a visionary 20-year strategy for making family planning universally available by 2015.

    The Cairo declaration saw women’s human rights take a quantum leap forward. For the first time, a global consensus acknowledged that the empowerment and economic independence of women and education of girls were integral to meeting global population and development goals. It was the first time that an international document clearly stated that women had the right to determine their own reproduction. Principle 4 of the Action Plan states: “ensuring women’s ability to control their own fertility, is a cornerstone of population and development-related programmes.”

    The Global Fund for Women supported dozens of women’s groups from developing nations who collectively helped shape the outcomes of that historic gathering. Founding President, Anne Firth Murray, noted that the Cairo Declaration was the first major UN document that defined women as independent sexual beings, not merely child-bearers or mothers. In her words, “This was a revolution in women’s empowerment.”

    The Cairo consensus provided much needed ballast for women’s groups seeking to amend laws and cultural norms that kept women silent on an issue vital to the well-being of their families and communities: control over their bodies. From villages in Bangladesh to urban favelas in Brazil, women used the language of Cairo to push for concrete gains in accessing reproductive health and rights. In many ways, worldwide family planning has been a huge success: the global birth rate halved from 1950 to 2005. Many women around the world now view their right to freely and responsibly make decisions over their reproduction, free from coercion and violence, as a basic human right.

    Yet, for some, the commitment to spreading freedom around the globe stops far short of ensuring women’s reproductive freedom. At a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Congressman Christopher Smith aggressively questioned Hillary Clinton about whether the Obama administration’s policies on reproductive health, services and rights included access to abortion. Clinton responded unapologetically. “Family planning is an important part of women’s health and reproductive health includes access to abortion that I believe should be safe, legal and rare.”

    We are going to need more straight talk of this nature and walk our talk if we want to ensure that the groundbreaking gains of Cairo are not eroded by a growing conservative and religious backlash. Despite the dedicated work of the United Nations and women’s rights advocates worldwide, over 500,000 women still die annually from preventable childbirth related injuries and illnesses. According to Population Action International, one in 65 women in developing countries risks dying during pregnancy or childbirth in her lifetime. Many of these are related to complications arising from unsafe abortions. In Mexico alone, up to 500,000 illegal abortions occur annually.

    These are daunting statistics, but there is hope. This is evident not only in the creation of the White House Council on Women and Girls or the overwhelming vote by the General Assembly to establish a new UN agency for women. There is also growing interest among policy makers and philanthropists in the benefits of improving education and opportunities for women and girls. Raj Shah, the new head of USAID has said, “We have a wealth of data and information that show that a dollar provided to a woman is more likely to be invested in child welfare, in education, in the health of a family and the sustainability of a community.”

    I have hope, even if women’s rights advocates fail to convince our opponents on moral grounds. I have no doubt we will prevail using the far more sobering statistics about basic planetary and human survival.

    Secretary Clinton’s speech comes on the heels of a dismal global conversation on climate change that made it all too clear that we must find ways to effectively offset carbon emissions. Population growth and climate change will collide in ways that will put all our lives at risk and will most grievously harm the poorest countries.

    In the Global Fund’s own experience, when girls and women have greater access to education – not just the 3 R’s: reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, but also the 3 C’s: courage, contraception, and choice – their improved health leads to positive community outcomes including economic growth and sustainable development. We agree with columnist Ellen Goodman: “if we can lighten the burden on the planet while widening the chances for women,” that’s our kind of offset. And, at least on the issues of women’s reproductive rights, this is proving to be our kind of State Department.

    * Kavita N. Ramdas is President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, the world’s largest women’s foundation dedicated to advancing the rights of women. (END)

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