'Don't let the US set the agenda': Takeaways from EuroNGOs on reproductive rights

A woman takes part in the Czarny protest against a restrictive anti-abortion law in Poland. Photo by: Iga Lubczańska / CC BY

BRUSSELS — Advocates dedicated to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) met in Brussels last week to strategize on how best to combat emerging populist movements they see as a threat to their cause — stressing the need for a “smarter” and more unified approach to advocacy, and for collaboration rather than competition.

The SRHR community celebrated World Contraception Day on September 26, but many believe that hard-won rights are at risk as conservative political, religious, and populist movements gain footholds across Europe, in the United States, and in developing countries. In particular, advocates are worried about the effects of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision earlier this year to reinstate an expanded version of the “global gag rule,” and to defund the U.N. Population Fund.

The Belgian capital hosted a multi-day conference to mark the occasion, which brought together activists, advocates, academics, donors, and practitioners to share experiences and ideas about how best to respond, and how to cope with funding cuts and restrictions on the services they can provide. Although organized by EuroNGOs, a coalition of European SRHR organizations, the event made clear that this is global problem: Attendees heard first-hand accounts of ongoing battles to defend SRHR in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Ireland, but also in countries such as Mozambique and Ghana; while U.S. organizations spoke of their struggles with the global gag rule.

Members of the SRHR community agreed that their best chance of success lies in standing together and maintaining pressure. Heather Barclay, policy specialist at the She Decides movement — which was launched as a reaction to the global gag rule — captured the mood of the event when she called on audience members to “get angry, stay angry, and hold the line” within an SRHR “landscape [that] has shifted so far in the past 17 years that ground we thought was solid under our feet has turned to quicksand.”

Devex was on the ground for the conference in Brussels. Here are five key takeaways.

1. Don’t let the US set the agenda

A key message that came out of the conference was the need for the SRHR community to wean itself off its reliance on U.S. funding. As Barclay put it, “we need to find a way of making the U.S. opposition irrelevant.”

At the same time, delegates were clear that U.S. funding cuts will create a very deep hole. The U.S. is historically the biggest bilateral donor to family planning and reproductive health services, and the global gag rule alone could affect up to $8 billion in funds. Mobilizing domestic resources within developing countries for SRHR services and commodities — and ensuring comprehensive health insurance coverage that includes family planning — can go some way to filling the gap, Barclay said, but will not be enough on its own.

“This is about the U.S. government forcing policy onto other governments; it's a sovereignty issue.”

—  Jonathan Rucks, head of advocacy at PAI

Ulla E. Müller, CEO of EngenderHealth, called on her fellow organizations to risk speaking out against “the establishment,” despite funding concerns. “When we start … worrying about our ability to attract funding, we are going down the wrong path,” she said. “When we stay silent, we are gagging ourselves.” Müller concluded that SRHR actors need to decide: “Do we want to set the agenda, or do we want to just react to an agenda?” adding that “women are dying every single day… and that’s our responsibility to make sure we respond in an appropriate way.”

Governments that don’t “push back” against the U.S. position on SRHR, and especially the global gag rule, are in effect allowing the U.S. government to “buy up partners around the world,” according to Jonathan Rucks, head of advocacy at PAI, a Washington, D.C.-based policy and advocacy group for reproductive health. The gag rule prevents non-U.S. NGOs that receive U.S. government funding for any of their activities from providing services related to abortion, including legal guidance and counseling. “I would like to see more of public pushback on the part of governments. This is about the U.S. government forcing policy onto other governments; it's a sovereignty issue,” he said. The She Decides movement, launched by European governments the day after Trump signed the global gag order, is a good example of such pressure, Rucks said.

But delegates added that the challenge now is working out how to keep up the momentum, and how to involve governments beyond Europe. Barclay said she wants to see a geopolitical shift in which “countries who don't want to support SRHR are on the global outside,” she said. She also called on advocates to work through the courts and legislative processes to challenge the global gag rule and make it impossible to implement in future years.

2. How to comply with the global gag rule

For those organizations that have decided to comply with the global gag rule in order to protect their funding, Rucks stressed the risk of “over implementing” the policy and withholding services that can be legally provided. This happened under the George W. Bush administration, he said, when “there was such a concern about unpacking the nuances of the policy that we saw circumstances where abortion could have been provided and it wasn’t.”

In response, PAI is developing a guide to understand the policy, and what it does and does not require organizations to do.  

“We need to find a way of making the U.S. opposition irrelevant.”

— Heather Barclay, policy specialist at the She Decides

Although U.S.-based organizations are exempt from the global gag rule, they are also grappling with the policy, according to Müller. U.S. NGOs have to decide whether or not to pass the restriction down to their foreign partners, which can be an impossible decision when considering the partner could be the only organization providing services in that area.

At the same time, U.S. organizations that choose to comply run the risk of inadvertently building the capacity and resources of organizations that do not share the same beliefs, Müller said. 

“The perception that American organizations are not impacted [by the global gag rule] has not considered the bigger picture,” she said, adding that SRHR NGOs need to start thinking of ourselves as “one community, and we are all impacted.”

3.  It’s more complex than ‘us versus them’

Andrea Peto, professor in the department of gender studies at Central European University in Hungary, warned advocates away from a binary “us versus them” narrative when responding to the rising tide of anti-reproductive rights movements around the world. This narrative plays into a “game” that positions sexual and reproductive rights as a “battlefield.” NGOs can only lose such a battle due to their limited resources compared to governments and political leaders, she said. Instead, “we need to try to think outside of the discourse … [and] fight on our own terms.”

Kwabena Osei-Danquah, director for governance and multilateral affairs at UNFPA, also pointed out that the drivers and specifics of SRHR movements are complex and differ between countries. “There are all kinds of factors driving the opposition other than what is happening in some parts of Europe,” he told Devex. For example, the influence of religion plays out differently in different parts of the world.

Similarly, certain elements of the SRHR agenda cause more problems in some regions than others, he said. For example, conservative governments in Latin America tend to take a hard line on abortion but are more tolerant toward sexual rights, including gay marriage, he said. In some parts of Africa, the opposite is true.

Advocates need to develop “strategies and definitions of SRHR” that take these differences into account in order to create an effective counter-movement, he said.

4. Smarter advocacy

Speaking during the opening plenary, Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s minister of development cooperation, suggested that tailoring the asks to the audience will be crucial to secure support for the SRHR agenda going forward. He argued that, in some contexts, health-based arguments for reproductive rights, including abortion, will be more effective than rights-based campaigns.

Speakers debated the merits of using different framings — including arguments based on economics, rights and values, evidence, or concepts of freedom, for example — in order to influence attitudes toward SRHR. Focusing on the values of “human happiness, love, and caring for each other” was proposed as an alternative way of framing SRHR narratives that could resonate with a “silent majority,” according to Martijn Lampert, research director at a Dutch market research company Motivaction International.  

Iversen agreed saying that the SRHR community had “homework” to do around reframing its discourse from being “against and fierce” to one that is more “positive” and focuses on issues that “are relevant to people’s lives.” By doing this, “we can see new people and new institutions really stepping up to the equality agenda,” she said.

Jennifer Daves, senior program officer in advocacy and communications at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, summarized the discussions as leading to “smarter advocacy,” which could make family planning advocacy efforts more powerful by being “smart, attainable, achievable, and resonate with the people we are asking.”

“I see danger in us moving away from the human rights argument just to be strategic.”

— Catherine Nyambura, advocacy officer at FEMNET

However, others were concerned that such “careful” framings would harm the cause by allowing SRHR to become watered down. “I see danger in us moving away from the human rights argument just to be strategic — we’ve already lost so much ground so if we move further we might put ourselves in a hole too big to get out,” according to Catherine Nyambura, advocacy officer at FEMNET, a pan-African feminist network working to advance women’s rights.

5.  Toward a more collaborative approach

During the conference, it was widely recognized that the SRHR community must come together and present a unified front in terms of definitions, strategy, and messaging, and also to find “partners in unexpected places,” according to Professor Peto.

Ton Coenen, chair of EuroNGOs, said it was important to find a “common language” with which to make the case for SRHR, and to include a strong focus on values in combination with evidence in order to “speak to the heart and the mind.”

Katja Iversen, head of Women Deliver, told Devex she was buoyed to see “much more collaboration” within the sector than in previous years. “I see lots of organizations coming together in new constellations … [and] that's the way it has to go. We're seeing shrinking budgets and shrinking civil society space, and so we can't compete; it has to be collaborative,” she added.

Iversen pointed to the Deliver for Good campaign — run by Women Deliver in collaboration with a range of health, nutrition, education, finance, and feminist partner organizations — as an example of the kind of collaboration that is needed. It broadens the focus “on the whole girl and the whole woman,” and not just her reproductive needs, which makes the message “much easier to relate to,” she said.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.