How Donald Trump Is Already Damaging Women's Rights Around The World
The Debrief: Your need to know on the 'Mexico City policy' aka the 'Global Gag Rule'
If, like me, you woke up the morning after Trump’s inauguration desperately hoping that it had all been a bad dream – that Hills had won a landslide victory, and the streets were filled with women, dancing on the smashed up shards of the patriarchy – I have some bad news for you. Women did take to the streets. Some of them even danced. But, it was in solidarity, not celebration, as we all prepared to hunker down through what is set to be a difficult period for women’s rights.
‘Nobody has more respect for women than I do’, Trump declared last year, bullshitting his way through his first presidential debate. His position on abortion has been fluid throughout his life (much like his politics). And, read alongside the catalogue of insults that Trump has thrown at womankind over the past few months alone, he is well and truly schooling us in the meaning of the word ‘irony’. But these are words, and as the famous suffragette chant goes, it’s ‘deeds not words’ that leave a lasting legacy.
So, what of Trump’s deeds? What will his presidency actually mean for women on issues relating to our fundamental human rights, such as access to contraception and abortion?
Let’s start with the US. During his election campaign, Trump sent a letter to pro-life leaders in which he declared his commitment to ‘advance the rights of unborn children’ [read: interfere with women’s most basic rights of autonomy over their own bodies]. He pledges to do this by nominating pro-life justices to the Supreme Court. A position on the Supreme Court is not just for this administration, it’s for life. There’s one position up for grabs right now, but three current judges are over the age of 78, i.e. – to be brutal, not likely to be around much longer.
It’s highly unlikely (but not impossible) that Donald Trump would ever be able to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and also important to note that threats to reproductive rights in the US predate Trump's win. Under a Democrat president the last 8 years have seen restrictions to abortion put in place in various states across America, Texas for instance. However, he has also pledged to defund Planned Parenthood. Abortion actually comprises only a tiny percentage of the services that Planned Parenthood provides for women, and this could leave two and a half million US women, men and young people without access to lifesaving care such as cancer screenings, birth control and STI and STD tests.
It doesn’t stop there, because it’s not just women in the US who’ll lose access to vital family planning services under Trump’s presidency. Trump has already signed an executive order which bans international NGOs that receive US federal funding from providing abortions or even offering information about them.
Women as far afield as Zimbabwe, Bolivia or Myanmar will be affected by this, known as the ‘Mexico City Policy’, or the ‘Global Gag Rule’. It’s a policy that the Republicans and Democrats have been playing political Ping-Pong with since the 1980s. A Democrat president gets in and tears it up, only for the next Republican in the Whitehouse to reinstate it.
What is the global gag rule?
The Global Gag Rule states that any overseas organisation receiving aid from the US cannot have anything to do with abortion. Even if abortion is only a tiny part of its services, or restricted to certain regions. Even if it doesn’t use the money it receives from the US for those abortion services. Even, if it doesn’t actually provide abortions, but gives counselling to women about abortion services, speaks of it as an option or simply takes a pro-choice stance.
This time, the policy could have a greater impact than ever before because of the huge progress made under Obama’s administration. During Obama’s presidency the US invested $610 million a year in family planning and reproductive health in some of the world’s poorest countries, giving hundreds of thousands of women (and men) access to voluntary family planning services. The aid the US provided to organisations such as Marie Stopes International, which looks after women’s sexual and reproductive health, was a huge chunk of their budget. And now, with a flourish of Donald Trump’s pen, that money has disappeared.
What’s more, on closer inspection it seems Trump is looking to extend the policy to include ‘all organisations working in global health’ (as opposed to just family planning). With this amendment, Marie Stopes estminates that the Global Gag Rule could impact 15 times as much funding as it did under Bush. Either that, or health organisations focused on issues such as HIV, TB and malaria will feel they have no choice but to agree to the policy to keep their funding, so will no longer be permitted to speak to women about abortion or refer them to other organisations who can help.
One of the nations that will be hardest hit by the Global Gag Rule is Madagascar. Madagascar may conjure up images of an idyllic tropical paradise, complete with sun, sea, lemurs and David Attenborough voiceover. But, it is also one of the top 10 poorest countries in the world, with 90% of Malagasy people living on under $1.5 a day.
In Madagascar nearly 4 in 10 women using modern contraceptives last year got them from Marie Stopes, and over 80% of long-term contraceptives (such as IUDs and implants) were provided by the organisation. Long-term contraception is a lifeline for rural women, many of whom have to walk for two hours or more to get to the nearest clinic. In total, 850,000 Malagasy people are reliant on the organisation’s services, but with 40-50% of its funding coming from the US Government, Marie Stopes Madagascar will now have to cut its provision by almost half.
Many of the organisation’s rural outreach programmes – which are almost entirely US-funded – are likely to be shut down entirely. For those of us who take access to contraception for granted it’s hard to imagine just how much of an impact this will have. Marie Stopes Madagascar’s Country Director, Lalaina Razafinirinasoa, tells me that this could result in 165,000 unwanted pregnancies, and a huge increase in the number of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths.
As Lalaina explains, women who are unable to control how many children they have are forced to focus all their energy on basic survival needs – food, water and shelter. But with access to contraception, women can gain an education, provide better care for the children they do have and work; a study Marie Stopes conducted between 2012 and 2014 found that 45% of families with access to family planning saw a marked improvement in their socioeconomic status. Yet now, Lalaina tells me, ‘all this progress to women’s empowerment is under threat’.
The number of young mothers in Madagascar is also exceptionally high – one in three girls has at least one child by the age of 18, often born to older men. This can be down to lack of sex education or can be the result of coercion or abuse, Lalaina explains, and if these girls are unmarried they can find themselves cast out by their communities and forced to look after their child alone.
It’s a similar story in the other nations in which Marie Stopes operates. The organisation estimates that worldwide 1.5 million women will be affected by the cuts to its services alone. Women like Kudzai Mujuru in Zimbabwe, who dreamt of becoming a nurse until she fell pregnant at 17. Kudzai had been working as a housemaid to pay for her education, but after she fell pregnant the father took no responsibility and she had to leave work. Two years later when taking her baby girl to a clinic, the nurses told her about the free voluntary contraception services offered by Marie Stopes International and it gave her a fresh start. ‘I want to start planning my future again’, Kudzai said. ‘I want to look for a job and I want to go back to school because you never know what might happen in the future. I will now tell all my friends about the benefits of using long-term contraception. They all have plans for the future too.’
Marie Stopes provided Kudzai with an implant that will protect her from unwanted pregnancy for five years, but her friends might not be so lucky – the Global Gag Rule will have a similar impact in Zimbabwe as in Madagascar. The irony (again) is that this policy was designed by the republicans to reduce the number of abortions around the world, but in defunding the organisations that also provide the contraception, it will have the opposite effect. The World Health Organisation cites a study, conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine, which looked at 20 countries globally and found that abortion rates actually rose by 40% when the global gag rule was last in place, under President George Bush.
I ask Lalaina what women in Madagascar are likely to think about Trump. ‘I think a Malagasy woman in a remote area would not really know about this – who Donald Trump is’, she replies; ‘only well educated people here will understand the impact of the US election. But she would know that the support she’s receiving is funded by the American people. So we will have to explain that the policy has changed and we cannot access this funding anymore – it’s out of our control’. Is there nothing that can be done, I ask? ‘We’re trying to find alternative funding, but we don’t think it’ll cover the total amount we’ve received from USAID’, Lalaina responds.
And what can we do? Two and a half million women and their male allies on the streets across the US and around the world was a good start, but what next? The team at Women’s March London have put together an list of 10 actions you can take in the fight for women’s rights over the next 100 days. You can also make a donation to Marie Stopes International using this link. In the words of African American activist and writer Audrey Lorde, ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’. We’ve got a long, hard fight ahead of us. This is the beginning.
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