Will Women and Girls Win the Election?

In her weekly column, Anika Rahman counts the days (447) until an election that could bring real change in maternal health for women and adolescent girls globally.

As each of us examines who will be our next president, a mere 447 days from today, I hope we will raise our voices loud enough to bring sunshine into the process. Transparency in government might not be a hot, pressing topic, but it ought to be–especially when the lack of it puts the global health and rights of women at risk.

A Presidential veto looms over the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, in large part because the President objects to the section of the bill that is meant to bring much-needed transparency to our government.

According to President Bush's Statement on Administrative Policy, the President objects to "burdensome reporting requirements in the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill with regard to Executive decisions to withhold funding from organizations that support or participate in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization programs."

This directly refers to the language the Administration has used to withhold funding from UNFPA, the United Nation's Population Fund, for the past 6 years and recent Congressional attempts to put the spotlight on the Administration's actions. UNFPA operates in over 140 countries around the world and is the largest international source of assistance for women.

I guess it would be burdensome for this Administration to explain why they are withholding funds from UNFPA, especially after the State Department under Secretary Colin Powell itself stated that UNFPA is not engaging in coercive abortions or sterilization programs.

After six years of denying these funds, it makes sense that Congress is asking the Administration to shed some light on their justification.

  • The Administration might actually have to admit that they don't have any concrete reason for withholding these funds.
  • The Administration might have to admit they are playing politics with the lives of women around the world.

The probability of this threat is tragic, especially now, when there is a clear and unequivocal imperative for the United States to lead international efforts to support the health and dignity of women around the world just as we did in 1969, when we helped to establish UNFPA. Congress has shown its willingness to allocate funds for UNFPA, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the President to lead. Unfortunately, we haven't seen the leadership we need in over six years.

I believe it's burdensome that every minute a woman dies in childbirth. And for every woman who dies, 20 more experience serious complications such as obstetric fistula. More than 200 million women worldwide want, but don't have, access to safe, modern contraception. Each day, 14,000 people are newly infected with HIV, and increasingly, those infected are young, married women. We need to put an end to these preventable tragic deaths. No amount of paperwork in the world is more burdensome than saving a life.

That's why it's indefensible for the Administration take the easy way out and avoid explaining why funding approved by Congress is repeatedly withheld from UNFPA. Adding insult to injury, there is an eerie silence around this issue – very few people are questioning the administration.

I hope when Election Day arrives, we can say we've thoroughly educated each candidate about the need to help the world's women that de-funding UNFPA is no longer an option.