Women wearing protective face masks hold onto purple ribbons at a protest for women’s rights in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by: Umit Bektas / Reuters

The year 2020 is a tense moment for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic threatens years of hard-won progress on gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights, commonly referred to as SRHR, and risks pushing these crucial issues to the fringes of development agendas. The climate emergency, conflict, record numbers of displaced people, and the resurgence of ultra-conservative forces also pose a danger to equality and to reproductive freedom, jeopardizing the well-being of billions of women and girls and society at large.

Long before COVID-19 struck, progressive governments in Europe were already at the forefront of global action to support SRHR. Now, as crises worsen on multiple fronts, the fight is on to protect the budgets and breathing space needed if these plans are to survive, let alone thrive.

2019 ended on a high note for SRHR with a string of political breakthroughs. Fifty-eight countries had endorsed a statement on SRHR as a “cornerstone” of universal health coverage. And at the Nairobi Summit, 55 countries united behind a common statement on gender equality and SRHR, with clear goals to support the 4.3 billion people lacking access to adequate sexual health services.

Today, the world looks very different. The pandemic has turned 2020 into a year of tragedy and turmoil with health, social, and economic inequalities exacerbated around the globe.

Meanwhile conservative governments and lobbyists have been using the crisis as a pretext for tearing up gender equality policy and working to eradicate SRHR from policies altogether. Members of the International Planned Parenthood Federation report that SRHR opponents have been spreading misinformation, reinforcing outdated worldviews, and pushing for regressive measures against SRHR, under cover of the pandemic.

UK announces £600M for SRHR amid US opposition

DFID chief Alok Sharma emphasizes the centrality of sexual and reproductive health and rights, as the U.S. representative calls for the term to be dropped from U.N. documents.

In May, for example, the United States administration sparked global outrage by demanding the removal of SRHR from the U.N.’s COVID-19 humanitarian response plan — a move rooted in moral bankruptcy.

While the COVID-19 crisis has seen SRHR come under sustained attack from conservative forces, often accompanied by a political slide towards isolationism and the scapegoating of international organizations or political rivals, many other governments have rallied to support both SRHR and each other.

We have spoken with progressive European governments as part of a consultation by Countdown 2030 Europe, a consortium of European NGOs focused on human rights and the global unmet need for family planning. We found that these governments are determined to protect SRHR, as part of the push towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and beyond.

These European governments endorse a bold, progressive vision that touches upon education, jobs, recreation, and every aspect of being human — and, in many cases, is informed by the comprehensive definition of SRHR presented in the 2018 Guttmacher-Lancet report.

When it comes to foreign and development policy, gender equality and SRHR are not seen as add-ons tagged onto plans after everything else has been sorted out. They are the lifeblood of health, human rights, and development.

Don’t get me wrong. Sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe are not perfect — far from it. Stigma, marginalization, and poverty remain barriers to health care and rights for people across the continent. The COVID-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter protests have brought into sharp focus how people’s gender, class, and ethnic identities — and systemic racism in health care — can severely affect health care access — including SRHR services — and mortality rates.

The fight for gender and racial equality in Europe has a long way to go. But being open to learning from European experiences of how social and economic factors can marginalize people — and from efforts to tackle this — can help make European governments more effective as development partners for other countries and when fighting the SRHR corner in global debates.

So as organized and cruel as coercive groups can be, there is still hope that Europe will continue to protect everyone’s health, with no exceptions, leaving nobody behind.

And it must. Any slight dip in funding could be catastrophic for low-income countries, where a staggering 35.7% of total health spending and close to 50% of spending on contraceptive supplies comes from development assistance. We call on European governments to maintain their level of official development assistance in solidarity with women and to ensure that SRHR remains a key priority in development aid. The quality of this assistance is as important as the quantity, and should be focused on reducing poverty and inequalities, addressing harmful gender norms, and recognizing the crucial role of civil society.

If Europe breaks its promises to women and girls and sidelines SRHR, the repercussions on health and rights will be devastating.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Caroline Hickson

    Caroline Hickson is the regional director of the IPPF European Network. She has worked in the NGO sector for over 30 years across the U.S., Ireland, the U.K., Germany, and Belgium covering a variety of sectors including health, homelessness, international development, humanitarian relief, fair trade, and human rights.