WHISTLER, Canada — Official declarations released by the G-7 at the conclusion of a three-day development ministerial focused on women and girls — but with no mention of reproductive rights.
Instead, the Declaration on Unlocking the Power of Adolescent Girls for Sustainable Development said the G-7 countries committed to “promoting and protecting adolescent health and well-being, through evidence-based health care and health information.”
The development ministerial held last week in Whistler was hosted by Canadian Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau. Her chair’s summary included stronger language, saying that “many ministers” called for “access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and information, including family planning and prevention of sexually transmitted infections.”
Delegates and observers of the meetings speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss confidential briefings told Devex that the U.S. delegation at the meeting of the seven most advanced economies was responsible for the softer official language in the declarations.
While USAID spokesman Clayton McCleskey declined to get into the specifics of closed-door diplomatic conversations, he said “The United States remains committed to helping women and children thrive, particularly in countries where need is greatest. The United States remains the world's leading donor on maternal and child health.”
The Trump administration, which has pursued policies restricting access to abortion, reimposed the "global gag rule," which restricts the ability of U.S.-funded NGOs to provide information about abortion to the women who these health organizations serve.
The U.S. fiscal year 2018 budget appropriation includes $607.5 million for family planning.
Setting a new precedent for the G-7 ministerial meeting, ministers met with six young women leaders to hear why the international development agenda must focus on women and girls if it is to achieve the SDGs.
Present at discussions with the development ministers were six young women leaders from around the world who were brought to Canada as a part of the country’s feminist foreign policy agenda, which puts women and girls at the center of its work. The women were selected by a coalition of NGOs that has been lobbying the Canadian government to increase funding for such programming.
“They want to have choices. They want to have the choice over their own body, of course, but they also want to have choices regarding their career, their education, so this was also very interesting to hear directly from them,” Bibeau said of the meetings between the young women and G-7 development ministers.
The young women shared their stories of advocating for the rights of women and girls in their communities in developing nations, and several of them spoke directly about the importance of access to appropriate health care services in different cultural contexts.
“The issue was raised by different girls in the room, as well as ministers themselves,” said Caroline Riseboro, CEO of Plan International Canada, which is part of the coalition that selected the young women to attend the meetings. “Our understanding was that the U.S. delegate in the meeting said ‘how do we raise [sexual and reproductive health and rights] in culturally sensitive ways?’”
“Canada is prioritizing [sexual and reproductive health and rights and] many other countries are helping close some of the gap,” Riseboro said. “It’s not sufficient, but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances.”
The development ministerial was the first in the G-7 context since 2010, and declarations released after such multilateral meetings are typically drafted before official events begin. The G-7 delegations continued passing drafts of the Whistler declarations back and forth as the three-day event took place.
The development ministers also held joint sessions with G-7 finance ministers, whose own sessions were overshadowed by the U.S. announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs on key allies, including Canada.
The four development declarations released out of the Whistler meetings centered on sustainable development themes: “advancing adolescent girls’ empowerment for sustainable development; combating sexual exploitation and abuse in international assistance; gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in humanitarian action; and accelerating innovation for development impact.”
The G-7 condemned recent scandals of sexual abuse and exploitation in the international aid community, and said the bloc will promote the development and implementation of feedback and response mechanisms to increase accountability in such situations.
“While we recognize that the recent cases of sexual exploitation and abuse do not represent the conduct of the vast majority of aid workers, nevertheless, in recent months, G-7 members have communicated their expectation that partners adhere to the highest ethical standards in numerous international fora and called for concrete actions to keep people safe from this harm,” the declaration said.
As the G-7 prepares to hold its leaders’ summit in Quebec this week, David Morley, CEO of UNICEF Canada, which is also part of the NGO coalition, said the development declarations were a positive sign.
“When we get governments saying things, we can start to hold them to that,” Morley said. “It means that when the leaders come together, we can see: what are they going to do to carry these declarations further? What will they do to take the cause of adolescent girls further? What will they do to continue work on issues of sexual exploitation and abuse? I think it’s a positive step.”