Opinion: The 'global gag rule' is devastating for women. Here's how we're fighting back.

Dutch Labour MP Lilianne Ploumen during a working visit to Kenya, where she visited a number of programs for sexual health, family planning, and safe abortion. Photo by: Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken / CC BY-SA

This time last year, the freshly sworn in president of the United States had just signed a document that would have catastrophic consequences for girls and women all over the world. The reinstatement of the “global gag rule” did not come as a surprise for those who have been embedded in the global health sector for many years. But this time, it was also dramatically expanded.

The global gag rule directly affects the ability of girls and women to decide what happens to their bodies. Naturally, the reinstatement and the expansion of the rule provoked a sense of anger, indignation, and hopelessness — not just for those who have been working for decades to ensure girls and women have access to all of the health care they need, but also for anybody who believes that girls and women should be free.

One year on, full impact of 'global gag rule' begins to emerge

A year after the reinstatement of the "global gag rule" under United States President Donald Trump, family planning NGOs are beginning to take stock of their losses.

The following day, exactly one year ago — barely after the ink from President Donald Trump’s pen had dried — the fight back had begun. That anger, indignation, and hopelessness radically transformed into energy, action, and hope. A bold new movement was born: She Decides. A movement to say that she decides what happens to her body — including when, whether, and with whom she has children.

She Decides began as a rallying cry. It was a call to action for all those who shared a visceral desire to do something. It then became a hashtag, and just six weeks later, there was a conference where we saw 200 million euros pledged to organizations that were affected by the global gag rule. Brave, tireless, and brilliant organizations and individuals have been working on matters concerning girls’ and women’s bodily autonomy and comprehensive health care for decades. And suddenly, the rest of the world was paying attention, too. Her right to decide came into the center of a political conversation and suddenly we were embracing a new energy and a new language that brings more and more people, from all walks of life, on board to embrace the idea that She Decides.

So began 2017 — a year that will go down as a global tipping point in the fight for gender equality. The horrors that girls and women have always faced barraged their way to the front of mainstream global consciousness. She Decides; #MeToo, #TimesUp. Stories of injustice, abuse, and disrespect finally dominated headlines, calling into question systemic power imbalances that are too often exploited by those at the top.

As we look forward to 2018, we must take everything we learned from 2017 and turn it into constructive, productive action, and long-term solutions. We must continue to create ways to give voice to girls and women, and ensure that laws are in place to ensure every girl and woman can legally and safely make decisions about her own body. We need to ensure the services are available in every corner of the globe, so that no matter what she decides, she can realize her agency to do so. We must be unapologetic about a woman’s right to the full spectrum of health care she needs; including safe abortion.

While there is a long way to go, there are already promising signs. We’ve seen important laws change for the better, such as Chile lifting its total ban on abortion and the removal of a legal code in India that previously allowed men to have sex with their underage wives. This week the U.N. has also put out progressive guidelines on sexuality education, urging every country to employ a comprehensive approach in educating girls, boys, and gender non-conforming children about their bodies and how to have a safe, happy, and healthy sex life. We know that change is possible.

In just 12 months, She Decides has evolved from a two-word rallying cry and hashtag to a one-day conference a couple of months later, and then to a global, political movement that is guided by a distinct vision outlined in the She Decides Manifesto: A new normal where girls and women decide about their bodies, their lives, their futures. Without question. The She Decides movement now has 36 champions at the helm, including 10 government ministers, several NGO leaders, and youth activists, and countries and foundations have mobilized 400 million euros to fill the funding gap created by the global gag rule, plus an additional 500,000 euros donated by private individuals via Rutgers. This week there have been hundreds of individuals conspiring in India to form the first national movement of She Decides — due to launch in March.

So, one year on from a big moment, it is natural to pause and reflect. Yes, She Decides began as an urgent reaction to the global gag rule. But now we are experiencing a movement for anybody who wants to see a world where women and girls are free: free from oppression, free from harm, and free to make their own choices about their bodies, lives, and futures. While the global gag rule is an immediate threat to that, it is not the only policy or law that must change. In a lot of places, there is continued opposition to the idea that women and girls can decide what happens to their bodies and lives. But the ground is shifting, the narrative is changing and we must continue to push, to inspire, to act, and to grow the movement by standing up and speaking out; changing the rules; and unlocking resources so all women and girls can decide. Without question.

On March 2, 2017, there was one conference in Brussels. The same date in 2018 will be She Decides Day, where we will see many events of different sizes and formats take place all over the world, affirming the continued passion for — and commitment to uphold — the right of every girl and woman to decide.

About the author

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    Lilianne Ploumen

    Lilianne Ploumen is an MP for the Dutch Labour party since March 2017. Prior to that she was the minister for foreign trade and development cooperation from 2012 to 2017. In that capacity, she launched the She Decides initiative in January 2017 to support the rights of girls and women to decide freely whether, when, with whom, and how many children they have.