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When it comes to SRHR, the EU needs to walk the talk to prevent a setback in advancing women’s rights

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The EU must heed its words when it comes to prioritising sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in its external action. As a long-standing member and Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Coordinator of the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), I am witnessing first-hand how many elements of SRHR are still contested and being challenged, including at EU-level, on a daily basis, writes German MEP Maria Noichl.

Other parts of the world, in particular low- and middle-income countries, face even greater challenges, for example when it comes to eliminating early and forced marriage, harmful practices such as, for example, female genital mutilation, sexual and gender-based violence, or high rates of unintended pregnancies. The fight for accessible and equitable reproductive health services, non-discrimination, and self-determination is far from over. On the contrary, current crises have slowed down progress on these and many other important elements of SRHR. According to the European External Action Service, Family Planning and reproductive health services in 26 countries were confronted with financial gaps as domestic resources were diverted to the COVID-19 pandemic response. However, crises like COVID-19 tend to hit women and vulnerable populations the hardest, including inside the European Union.

The EU has shown continuous political support for SRHR in major policies and strategies such as the EU Consensus on Development, the Gender Action Plan III, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument - Global Europe, the Team Europe Initiative on sub-Saharan Africa, and most recently the Youth Action Plan. However, new data published this week in the Donors Delivering for SRHR report shows that the EU’s political commitments do not hold up to scrutiny when looking at actual funding for SRHR in the EU’s development cooperation.

Donors Delivering is an annual publication about the state of global funding for SRHR, reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health, and family planning published by Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung (DSW) and the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF). Specifically, it tracks the total funding support and the share of Official Development Assistance (ODA) that members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee dedicate to these areas.

Looking at the report, it is clear that some important donors such as the EU institutions are not pulling their weight when it comes to advancing SRHR globally. Specifically, whilst total funding for SRHR, family planning, and reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health increased in 2020 (the most recent confirmed data), it did not grow at the same rate as ODA in 2020. So even though EU institutions spent more than 21 billion USD on ODA in 2020, only 1.5 percent of this went to SRHR, less than 1 percent to family planning, and 3.1 percent to reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health. To put these numbers into perspective: Canada dedicates more than 8% of its official development assistance budget to SRHR.

This failure to prioritise funding for sexual and reproductive health and rights as part of their ODA despite donating comparably large sums is a characteristic that EU institutions share with other large donors such as France or Germany. Meanwhile, smaller members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee are showing the way on dedicating development funding to SRHR. For EU member states, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Sweden lead the ranking of championing sexual and reproducitve health and rights in their aid budgets, all earmarking around double or more of EU institutions’ ODA percentage to go to SRHR, reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health (RMNCH), and family planning. However, in terms of actual money spent, they do not come close to the amounts EU institutions can - and do - spend. Given their larger spending power, EU institutions and other large donors have a special responsibility to devote a bigger part of their ODA to SRHR, RMNCH, and family planning.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are by no means optional “flourishes” of developmental cooperation but constitute a fundamental right. They are a crucial means to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals of gender equality, no poverty, quality education, and economic growth, to name just a few. Promoting access to SRHR is key to breaking the cycle of poverty that ensues when girls are forced to drop out of school because of teenage pregnancies, leading to unemployment and fewer opportunities as well as greater dependence on their partner or father. Increased funding for SRHR can have a tremendously positive impact: for example, with just 1 million euros funding for family planning interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, the EU could help avert 25,327 unintended pregnancies, avert 7,584 abortions, and save the lives of 61 women and girls, according to the new Guttmacher Investment Impact Calculator.

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Recent developments such as the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US, which so far has consistently been the most substantial SRHR donors of all members of the OECD’s Development’s Assistance Committee in both relative and absolute terms, is proof that sexual and reproductive rights remain globally contested, including in the global north. Poland’s de facto abortion-ban, Malta’s de jure abortion ban, and severe infringements on the access to abortion care in Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Italy are further instances of this erosion of sexual and reproductive rights closer to home. These examples show that the progress made on advancing sexual and reproductive rights must not be taken for granted, nor should it be taken as irreversible. And in addition to lacking political will or even open resistance we will have to fear another enemy of adequate funding for SRHR around the globe: looming recession in Europe and beyond.

This is why EU institutions must do more now to create demand for and promote access to comprehensive, integrated, affordable, quality, and discrimination-free SRHR information and services around the world, especially in these times of crisis, and especially given a growing movement in the global north that sees SRHR, including abortion care, as negotiable.

It’s time the EU walked the talk and stepped up its support for sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide to prevent a backsliding of women’s rights in the current political climate.

Read the full Donors Delivering report 2022 here.

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EU Reporter publishes articles from a variety of outside sources which express a wide range of viewpoints. The positions taken in these articles are not necessarily those of EU Reporter.

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