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Every year, more than 15 million girls are forced into marriage before the age of 18. Every year, 16 million young girls between the ages of 15 and 19, and 1 million girls younger than 15, give birth, primarily in developing countries. In addition, 3 million of these girls under the age of 19 undergo abortions in inadequate conditions. Every year, 22 million unsafe abortions are carried out around the world. A large majority of these take place in developing countries. The consequences: 5 million hospitalisations due to complications and 3 million women suffering from untreated complications. The statistics are as numerous as they are alarming. Human tragedies are hidden behind these figures.
Organisations in the field
There are many civil society organisations (NGOs, universities, trade unions, etc.), governments and United Nations agencies (UN Women, the World Health Organisation - WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund - UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund - UNFPA, etc.) who work to raise public awareness, educate the populations at risk, change mentalities and provide quality healthcare in good conditions. This long-term work requires permanent contact with the populations and an active and continual presence in the field. The areas of intervention are immense: they extend to the most remote rural areas. Five Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) are directly related (see the icons above). This demonstrates the extent of the problem and the fact that it requires significant investment. Up until 2016, organisations from the sector could rely on traditional donors to fund their budgets. But the wind has changed on the part of Western donors.
Mexico City Policy
The Mexico City Policy, or the Global Gag Rule prohibits organisations which receive American funds from engaging in any activities related to abortion. These organisations, which work throughout the world, need to certify that they do not use any of their funds, even those not provided by the United States, for any activities directly or indirectly related to abortion. The policy was announced for the first time under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, at the UN International Conference on Population, held in Mexico in 1984. At the time it only applied to American territory. Since then, this policy has either been rescinded or reintroduced with alternating Democrat (contra) or Republican (pro) governments. At the end of 2016 - start of 2017, it was reinstated by Donald Trump, who interprets it sensu stricto and applies it throughout the world.
The impact is enormous: a health centre in Benin which uses a budget from the US to vaccinate against malaria, as well as a budget from the Netherlands for family planning, will no longer receive its American budget. This is due to its advisory activities in the areas of childbirth, contraception and safe abortion. As such, the centre will have to significantly reduce its activities, or may even be forced to close its doors. The United States are in the leading pack of donors to various development actors, and this decision by President Trump will represent a shortfall of several billion dollars. For a country which is a pioneer when it comes to protecting liberties and defending human rights (which include women's rights), this policy is a step backwards. It will result in more unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, diseases and deaths. The consequences will be devastating for women and their communities. And the most vulnerable will be the first victims.
The European and international reaction came swiftly. On 28 January 2017, the Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen, launched the crowdfunding platform She Decides. The initiative brings together the countries and organisations who share the same vision on family planning and the rights of women and girls. A crowdfunding initiative (funding a project by appealing to the general public) was launched at the same time to facilitate private donations.
She Decides has rapidly garnered huge popularity. Belgium, Denmark and Sweden joined the Netherlands and organised a conference of support and commitment for the rights of women and girls, on 2 March in Brussels. More than 50 governments and members of parliament from around the world, as well as representatives from the United Nations, NGOs, foundations and the private sector all participated. They pledged €181 million to make up the shortfall of American funding. The Belgian Minister Alexander De Croo, who hosted the conference, was delighted by this response: "Positive reactions have come from all over the world. Various countries have already announced that, like Belgium, they intend to partner with the Dutch initiative. But there are also numerous requests on the part of private persons who wish to make a contribution. I received an email from an American who didn't approve of his government's decision and wished to make a financial contribution."
What is Belgium doing?
The Belgian Development Cooperation has pledged a contribution of €10 million. Minister De Croo has decided to increase the multi-annual contribution to the general resources of UNFPA, which is particularly affected by the decisions of the American president, by €2 million. An additional €2 million will be allocated to the UNFPA Supplies fund, which provides contraceptives to the poorest people. €4 million has been allocated for the work of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and its local partners. €1.5 million has been set aside for an education project for sexual and reproductive health for young people in Benin, using digital resources, and implemented by UNFPA and its partners. A further €500,000 will shortly be allocated.
Mission in Benin and Senegal
The conference of 2 March was not just a flash in the pan. The initiative generated an enormous amount of enthusiasm, both on the part of governments and civil society organisations, and gradually transformed into a She Decides movement. Since then, Belgian Minister for Development Cooperation De Croo has visited Benin and Senegal. He was accompanied by the well-known Belgian artist Axelle Red, who is a UNICEF Belgium goodwill ambassador, as well as Goedele Liekens, who is a sex therapist, television presenter, and also UNFPA goodwill ambassador.
Goedele Liekens (far left), Axelle Red (second from left) and Minister Alexander De Croo on a mission in Senegal.
In Benin, 35% of young girls are married before the age of 18, and almost 2 girls in every 10 have their first child before the age of 15. The Belgian delegation visited various projects, both in Benin and Senegal: family planning, post-natal assistance, sexual education and contraception, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and shelter for young mothers. The mission also discovered new mobile apps and other communication tools, designed to educate and raise awareness among young people. For example, at the market in Cotonou, young girls coming from rural areas to sell their wares receive information about contraception and STDs. This project makes it possible to reach a population which is particularly vulnerable and difficult to reach. The Belgian delegation also attended a theatre performance, presented by young people for young people, which portrays a pregnant young girl's rejection by her family and community, and her dropping out from school. The theme was the importance of contraception.
On the ground, Alexander De Croo observed: "Every woman must have the possibility of deciding herself if she wants children, and when and how many she wants. Especially for girls, it is important to first go to school, finish studies and gain the knowledge and skills necessary to make the decision themselves."
She decides has created a support unit, backed up by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), whose role is to provide content for the movement's website and centralise its message for the sake of coherence. The movement came up with a slogan: "When she decides, the world is better, stronger, safer". Let her decide then, and let's help her to be able to decide.