Dr. Natalia Kanem is the new head of the United Nations Population Fund Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

LONDON — Family planning advocates and women’s rights groups have welcomed Dr. Natalia Kanem’s appointment as the new head of the United Nations Population Fund and called on her to take a strong and supportive stance on divisive issues, including abortion, comprehensive sexuality education, and rights for sexual minorities.

Kanem — the first Latin American to take the post — has already had four months on the job after being made acting executive director of UNFPA in June after the sudden death of her former boss, Babatunde Osotimehin.  

News of her promotion was greeted with enthusiasm by many members of the sexual and reproductive health and rights community and donors, who hope she can bring stability to the U.N. agency, which is dealing with the death of its leader and President Donald Trump’s decision to defund it and reinstate an expanded version of the “global gag rule.” 

Official development assistance for family planning is also on the decline as European countries redirect resources to cope with the refugee crisis. This comes hand in hand with rising opposition to SRHR — particularly abortion and sexual rights — from some right-wing populist movements in Europe, the U.S., and also developing countries. Examining how NGOs and agencies such as UNFPA can and should respond to these right-wing movements was the topic of a two-day conference in Brussels held last week.

Kanem herself, in a speech during UNFPA’s annual executive board meeting in June, described the UNFPA as being in a “funding crisis,” and said “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights” are “under threat.” In the same speech she told members that the agency’s core resources dropped by $353 million in 2016.

Sector observers will watch closely to see how she positions her agency on such contentious issues as abortion, comprehensive sexuality education, and LGBT rights — all of which were enshrined and agreed to by 179 countries during the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

Ulrika Modéer, secretary of state for international development in Sweden — the largest provider of core support to the agency — told Devex that UNFPA’s role is now “more important than ever” given developments in the US.

Modéer said she hoped that under Kanem’s leadership, UNFPA will continue “moving in the right direction” on the issues of abortion and the rights of LGBTQI communities — rights which have been subject to much “defending and discussing” in recent years, she said.

An experienced UN bureaucrat able to ‘navigate’ the system

As an already senior UNFPA official — having previously served as the agency’s representative in Tanzania, and then as deputy executive director of programs before becoming acting ED — Kanem has the experience to hit the ground running, according to Suzanne Ehlers, CEO of Population Action International (PAI), a Washington, D.C.-based policy and advocacy group for reproductive health.

Kanem proved as much when she proceeded to lead UNFPA’s annual executive board meeting with no more than a day’s delay after the sudden death of her former boss. Similarly, Kanem was able to take up the reins and help host the FP2020 London conference in July, during which Ehlers described her as doing a “deft job of holding UNFPA’s leadership in the sector.”

Other family planning advocates also pointed to Kanem’s breadth of experience, which includes being a founding president of ELMA Philanthropies, and also holding a number of senior positions with the Ford Foundation, as well as academic positions at the schools of medicine and public health at Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University.

Kanem’s background — both within and outside the U.N. system — could help UNFPA create “amazing partnerships” with other agencies such as UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and humanitarian organizations, according to Ehlers. The PAI head also encouraged Kanem to depoliticize SRHR and present those rights as the “bedrock of economic prosperity.” That would tap into the enthusiasm for the mutually inclusive message behind the Sustainable Development Goals, seen at the UN General Assembly meetings last month, she said.

Calls for an inclusive stance on SRHR, including in humanitarian settings

Against a backdrop of the resurgence of anti-abortion movements around the world, SRHR advocates are keener than ever to secure a commitment that UNFPA will keep a firm stance when it comes to protecting all SRHR rights.

Ehlers said she hoped Kanem would position the agency to provide “real leadership on SRHR and show courage for an agenda which is under threat.” Similarly, Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen said that “under Dr. Kanem’s new leadership, UNFPA must continue to serve as a bold champion for gender equality and for the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women.” Iversen added that this should include comprehensive sexual education, as well as the “full” spectrum of SRHR rights.

Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister who founded the She Decides movement earlier this year in response to Trump’s reinstatement of the global gag rule, also congratulated Kanem and said in a statement sent to Devex: “As a major donor to UNFPA the Netherlands is looking to the new executive director to stand squarely for the important mandate that UNFPA has.”

The Women’s Refugee Commission, which has partnered with UNFPA in the past, urged Kanem to “step up” the agency’s work to ensure access to family planning services in humanitarian settings. UNFPA data states that more than two-thirds of preventable maternal deaths occur in fragile and conflict-affected countries.

“Given current political uncertainties and the global refugee crises, it is critical that we all step up to protect the health and rights of at-risk women and girls. UNFPA has an essential role to play in advancing that agenda,” said Sarah Costa, WRC’s executive director.

The Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) — a set of priority activities and also supply kits for first-responders to help protect women and girls at the start of a humanitarian emergency — and which includes basic sexual and reproductive health services, is a key component of this emergency response.

The Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises (IAWG), of which UNFPA is a member, has been working on revisions to the MISP kits, which will be further discussed at IAWG’s upcoming annual meeting in November.

“UNFPA’s leadership and partnership with international and local actors is key to ensuring that the MISP is implemented in acute emergencies...we hope that Dr. Kanem will continue to be a strong voice and advocate for the rights to SRH services of the 32 million women and girls who have been displaced by conflict and crisis,” Christine Galavotti, senior director for SRHR at CARE USA said.

UNFPA quiet on the big issues?

Some advocates Devex spoke to, who did not want to be named for professional reasons, raised concerns that UNFPA may be retreating from tackling divisive SRHR issues.

For example, during the June executive board meeting, Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — one of UNFPA’s biggest donors — issued a written statement in response to UNFPA’s annual report. In the statement, the ministry called on the agency to provide more analysis around its “efforts to improve access to safe abortion and post-abortion care,” and also the “protection of LGBTQI-community rights.”

Similarly, some SRHR supporters pointed out that UNFPA failed to mark International Safe Abortion Day last week on social media or any other channels. In contrast, other U.N. agencies, including the World Health Organization, UN Women, and UNHCR, were vocal on social media.

In a statement released by the UNFPA’s press office announcing her appointment, Kanem focused on family planning and UNFPA’s three strategic goals as set out in its strategy, launched in June.

“As Executive Director, I will focus on pursuing UNFPA’s transformative goals … ending preventable maternal deaths, ending unintended pregnancies by meeting the demand for family planning, as well as ending gender-based violence and harmful practices, such as child marriage, by 2030,” she said.

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About the author

  • 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.