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Opinion

Dear Canada: we need sustained leadership on global sexual and reproductive health and rights

By Sandeep Prasad and Julie Delahanty      

As a country, we have taken a bold step. Now is the time to show the world that Canada is here to stay. Our leadership is vital and the world’s women and girls are counting on us.

U.S. President Donald Trump's Global Gag Rule has slashed access to comprehensive health services like access to safe abortion and put life-saving care out of reach for many communities. Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore
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When it comes to standing up for sexual and reproductive health and rights, Canada is back.

There is a crisis of leadership on global development and nowhere is that more evident than in the area of sexual and reproductive health.

Canada’s support for women and girls to exercise their rights to bodily autonomy, make choices about their own reproductive health, and be treated with dignity and respect is driving economic, social, and political progress around the world.

There is enormous demand for services related to sexual and reproductive health. Every year 214 million women in developing countries want to prevent pregnancy but don’t have access to modern contraception. A lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services means that every day 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth and most of these deaths occur in fragile states, many of them affected by war and natural disaster.

Despite the obvious and pressing need, the last year has been marred with setbacks for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

From the fallout of Trump’s Global Gag Rule, to the crackdown on the LGBT community in Tanzania, the pushback against a person’s autonomy to make decisions about their own bodies and sexuality is being felt around the world. Stigma, the rise of regressive and populist movements, and major funding cuts to development assistance are all fueling a looming crisis for sexual health and reproductive rights.

The Trump administration’s Global Gag Rule has slashed access to comprehensive health services like access to safe abortion and put life-saving care out of reach for many communities. Preliminary studies from Uganda, Senegal, and Nepal show that the Global Gag Rule has already led to less access to contraceptives and scaled back delivery of critical services. Vulnerable populations—rural and hard-to-reach communities, refugees, LGBTQI+ people, and youth—are the most affected by these cuts.

It is against this backdrop of shrinking global leadership that Canada has emerged as a champion for women’s rights and gender equality on the world stage. Since 2017, Canada has introduced its Feminist International Assistance Policy, committed $650-million to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and will host the Women Deliver Conference in Vancouver in June of 2019.

These actions have already had an immense impact. In 2017-2018, Canada invested $43-million on family planning, which helped 1.4 million women and couples access contraception and prevented 387,000 unintended pregnancies.

That is why this month, over 100 organizations around the world signed a statement applauding Canada for its leadership. But the Government of Canada still needs to increase its investment in global sexual and reproductive rights if we want to see long-term change.

As part of the 100 plus organizations, we are calling on the Canadian government to double down on its commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights by investing $500-million a year over 10 years to the neglected areas of sexual and reproductive health as part of a $1.4-billion renewed commitment to global health beyond 2020.

By deepening its commitment, Canada can help empower 18 million women and adolescents—the same number of girls and women in Canada today—by supporting access to comprehensive sex-ed, safe abortion, and contraceptive care.

For women and girls, their families, and communities, investing in critical sexual and reproductive health services saves lives. This also results in cost-savings across health systems and leads to benefits in education, employment, and gender equality and empowerment.

More investment in sexual and reproductive health means basic access to contraception and menstrual products in emergency settings, like for Rohingya women in refugee camps in Bangladesh. It helps those on the frontlines care for the most vulnerable women and girls around the world and it is vital for maintaining the progress that has been made over the last two and a half years.

This is a time of both hostility and progress for women’s rights—and human rights. The world needs Canada now more than ever. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are the cornerstone of gender equality, strong economies, and healthy lives. This must remain at the heart of Canada’s global leadership.

We’ve heard from those on the frontlines who witness everyday the fallout of attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights. As a country, we have taken a bold step. Now is the time to show the world that Canada is here to stay. Our leadership is vital and the world’s women and girls are counting on us.

Editor’s note: This column was updated to correct the $1.4-million renewed commitment to $1.4-billion. 

Sandeep Prasad is executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, and Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada.

The Hill Times 

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