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What is Behind the Global Gag Rule?

  • JASS

The headlines are in. Yet again, women’s bodies are the battleground for conservative agendas in the US and abroad. The latest reinstatement and expansion of the Global Gag Rule by President Donald Trump has far-reaching impacts, especially for women in the Global South. The policy blocks nearly US$9 billion of US funding to foreign organizations that even mention ‘abortion’ in the services they provide, and now also to those working on HIV/AIDS, malaria, and maternal and child health. Evidence shows that the policy actually increases unsafe abortions and jeopardizes women’s health by reinforcing barriers and stigma in accessing reproductive healthcare and undermining women’s control of their own bodies. For many activists and JASS allies, these headlines miss two questions—whose interests does this policy serve and how are women organizing in response? While helpful, measures such as HER Act and the International Abortion Fund are not enough. JASS has much to share on how women are organizing to reclaim their bodies and health, and using creative strategies to challenge the hidden agendas threatening them.

Women’s Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in sub-Saharan Africa

“This policy not only endangers the survival, rights, and well-being of women by increasing unsafe abortion, it also increases the risks of unintended pregnancies.”  – Nancy, Katswe Sistahood

The Global Gag Rule will exacerbate existing conditions and reverse ongoing efforts to gain access to safe abortions, HIV/AIDS treatment, and maternal health services. Abortion is illegal in sub-Saharan Africa, except for South Africa. According to the World Health Organization, the majority of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths occur in Africa. Most countries lack the health infrastructure, political will, and resources to address women’s maternal health, and oftentimes, maternal health services are expensive and therefore, inaccessible to poor women. When it comes to HIV/AIDS, access to Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) is heavily reliant on funds from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria—largely funded by the US. “It is mostly the poor women who will be greatly affected by this policy, it is an unfair policy,” says Pirira, one of the thousands of grassroots HIV+ women leading the Our Bodies Our Lives campaign for quality ARVs in Malawi. The new Gag Rule means health organizations have two choices: stop all abortion-related activities or forgo funding. As Talent from Katswe Sistahood argues: “Organizations may be forced to stop responding to the real needs of the people they are working with just to get funding, at the expense of women’s lives.”

Influence of religious and cultural fundamentalisms

Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) is a politically contested area where the agendas of private interests, including corporations and fundamentalist religious group, are increasingly influential in government decision and policymaking. As Maria Tanyag points out, “the idea that sexual and reproductive health is fundamental to human dignity remains fiercely contested by religious groups and conservative governments at various levels of policy making.” The expanded Gag Rule itself is a political move by President Trump to cater to his rightwing base by proving he is anti-abortion.

Restrictive laws on abortion have served to limit women’s ability to make choices about their bodies by regulating their ability to exercise their bodily autonomy. This is in direct contradiction to many regional and international human rights instruments that aim to protect a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and reproductive health choices. As Fadziso Fadzisai from Katswe Sistahood says, “This policy borders on control of women’s bodies, particularly with regards to sex and reproductive choices. What is more infuriating is that a white man in Washington makes decisions that affect my agency and ability to make choices about my own body.” She laments further, “We are already burdened and shackled by religion and culture, now we also have to contend with further shackles that undermine our personhood and dignity.”

The right to a legal abortion is denied to vast numbers of women worldwide, because of the on-going efforts of these conservative interests using legal, socio-cultural, and political strategies. Manipulating social and cultural tradition is a key tool. For example, ‘Abortion kills’, ‘Abortion is murder,’ signs are a daily sight in the streets of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, echoing the same rhetoric in religious institutions, schools, and policy debates. Of course, if ‘abortion kills’, the implication is that women are solely responsible for getting pregnant and therefore should carry the pregnancy to term; if those women choose to abort, they are murderers.  

The Global Gag Rule reinforces these religious and cultural fundamentalisms that relegate women to the status of dependents and women’s bodies to the property of men. In Zimbabwe, the International Day of Families commemorations have been getting a lot of media attention while a day like World Contraception Day is not given equal prominence. Talent attributed this to “religious and cultural fundamentalisms that reinforce stereotypes about womanhood and how women should engage with their bodies.”

It is important to note, that access to contraception and related health information is lacking in most Southern African countries and is strongly accompanied by high levels of stigma. Many women access information on contraception only after their first pregnancy. Thus, many young unmarried women who become pregnant or get infected with STIs do not seek or receive assistance as they fear stigmatization, because their conditions are construed as being a result of ‘promiscuous behavior’ or ‘loose morals’. Often, women have little bargaining and negotiating power in their relationships. The patriarchal double standard means a lenient attitude towards men’s sexuality, excusing and rationalizing men having multiple sexual partners. For women to exercise greater autonomy over their own bodies requires better and more accessible sexual and reproductive health education.

Women are leading the way

JASS has much to offer and share about how women have been organizing even in the face of repressive laws, cultural taboos, and limited access to resources. In Malawi where almost 60% of women are living with HIV, JASS and allies have worked with community-based women for years to build their organizing capacity and leadership. Women living with HIV, now 6000 strong, lead the resulting national grassroots campaign, Our Bodies, Our Lives, in the fight to gain quality medicine and healthcare for all. To date, Our Bodies, Our Lives (OBOL) has won government agreement to phase out older toxic anti-retrovirals (ARVs), to implement programs designed to support people living with HIV (securing a 5% nutrition allowance in the district budget), and access to clean water. More women living with HIV are now not only healthier, but they have upended stigma, lifted taboos around sex and sexuality, and have established campaign committees in all 28 districts throughout Malawi to insure the full rollout of the new drug regimen and document any barriers to access. As JASS’ Sibo Singini from Malawi notes, “we have come a long way in terms of women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services; however, the gag rule will take us many steps back. This policy is really a shame.”

In Zimbabwe, where the political context is risky and constrained by violence and restrictive traditions, JASS partner, Katswe Sistahood uses art, music, film and theater to take the lid off taboo topics related to gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, and gender identity. Katswe utilizes JASS Southern Africa’s Heart-Mind-Body strategy—putting women’s health, feelings, and bodies at the center of organizing—to create safe spaces where women from low-income housing and informal settlements can share stories, find their voice, and organize circles for mutual support and self-defense. Katswe calls these spaces, Pachoto—a Shona word for fireside storytelling. To date, Katswe has mobilized more than 2,000 young Zimbabwean women into small mutual support networks to help them navigate healthcare services, legal protection, and the inevitable backlash from conservative families and communities. Since 2010, Katswe has also participated in a maternal health campaign to lift barriers in accessing maternal health services for all women. Katswe’s Talent Jumo noted that the re-introduction of the Global Gag Rule is a direct violation of the campaign and gives permission for governments to keep abortion laws in place: “The US is deemed by many as the human rights hub. Therefore, retrogressive policies such as the Mexico City Policy adversely affects our capacity to engage with our own governments. This is a bad precedence, one that gives our governments currency to deny the liberalization of abortion laws.”

These stories reveal the power of women’s efforts to claim their lives, bodies and rights—even though that means confronting powerful institutions and ingrained beliefs. The current political climate brings fresh urgency to the need for women to come together to organize, fight, and reclaim their rights. It is a time for boldness, creativity and smart strategy so we can not only resist but achieve true equality and liberation.

Picture credit: Fungai Machirori

Tanyag, Maria. “Global Gag Rule and the political economy of sexual and reproductive freedoms.” Quarterly Access 10, no. 1 (2017): 14-21.

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