She Decides fund for family planning takes shape

By Sophie Edwards 21 July 2017
Lilianne Ploumen, Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation, visits programs for sexual health, family planning and safe abortion in Kenya. Photo by: Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken / CC BY-SA

Six months after U.S. President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of an extended “global gag rule,” the She Decides family planning movement launched in its wake is beginning to take shape.  Donations have now reached $300 million, a considerable increase since the She Decides conference in March, when approximately $190 million were raised to support organizations affected by U.S. funding cuts and restrictions.

Details are also emerging of how the funds will be used and about a new U.K.-based management team.

Many of the new funding pledges were announced during last week’s London Family Planning Summit, which saw donors and developing country governments pledge approximately $5 billion to improve access to reproductive health services for women and girls in developing countries.

That included new commitments of approximately $113 million to She Decides from the Netherlands, Canada, and Finland, and contributions from two Dutch foundations totalling $87,000. Additional funding is also expected to be pledged by Norway and Denmark.

The growing funding pot comes alongside the establishment of a five-person support unit based in London, which the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation has committed to fund for the first six months with an initial investment of $935,000. The movement has also published a manifesto and laid out a clearer vision of how it will work.

She Decides was launched by Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation, within weeks of the announcement that non-U.S. NGOs that provide services or information relating to abortion — including counseling and legal advice — would no longer be eligible to receive U.S. government funding for any of their activities.

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By March — when a pledging conference was held in Brussels — the platform had attracted support from mainly European government donors, as well as Canada and Australia. Additional funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Sir Christopher Hohn, billionaire founder of CIFF.

However, while She Decides garnered heavy media coverage and donors rallied behind the cause, details about how the money would be spent and monitored remained vague following its hasty creation.

Now — with membership having snowballed to 55 — the movement is beginning to take shape.

More than an anti-Trump, pro-choice movement

Ploumen is still involved and told Devex she is “proud” of the progress that has been made. “More and more countries and organizations are joining the movement and that makes me very proud,” she said. “Every day it grows.”

Rather than a fund, she described it as a “global movement,” which does not have its own “bureaucracy” but is “lean and mean” and aims to avoid duplicating existing efforts.

As such, one of its main roles is to raise awareness and mobilize financial and political support for family planning efforts. The manifesto, launched last week, lays out a mission that takes a rights-based approach to family planning — an issue that came up frequently at the London summit. “Sexual and reproductive rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” Ploumen said during her speech.

Speaking at a special She Decides event convened a day before the London summit, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed described the movement as “like one of those fresh gusts of wind that can bring about most needed change,” through its work in “bringing the discourse about women’s and girls’ rights to another level.”

Rebekka van Roemburg, co-lead of She Decides, said the campaign’s mission is to “change the conversation” about family planning and “create a new normal where every girl and woman, everywhere, knows she can access the information, education, care and support she needs, without somebody else preventing her from doing so.”

Robin Gorna, also co-lead of She Decides, told Devex that although the movement launched as a reaction to Trump’s decisions on family planning, its position has since evolved.

“We are unapologetic about supporting every girl and every woman having the right to decide for herself on everything to do with her body, and that includes the right to decide to have an abortion,” Gorna said. But while “a lot of people have positioned She Decides as an anti-Trump, pro-abortion fund … we are much more than that,” she added.

The former head of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, Gorna also said that the global gag rule is not the movement’s only target. The campaign is also “deeply troubled” by laws and practices in other countries that “prevent women from making decisions about their own bodies,” she said.

Not a fund but a matchmaker

Although the details are still being arranged, both Ploumen and van Roemburg said that She Decides will ultimately play some kind of “matchmaking” role, linking donors to the “grassroots organizations” carrying out family planning work in developing countries who are most affected by the reinstatement of the global gag rule.

Organizations sub-contracted to do family planning work by international NGOs that are funded by USAID will no longer be eligible to receive those resources under the rule, unless they choose to shut down abortion-related services. While larger organizations such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International — neither of which will comply with the rule — may be able to find alternative donors, it is much harder for smaller, local NGOs to attract funding, van Roemburg explained. This is one area where She Decides could come in.

“Our next step will be looking into ways of how we can best reach a number of those organizations [affected by the global gag rule] to help compensate them,” she said and added that “we don’t envisage becoming a fund ourselves, but we do realize there is a huge demand out there and so we want to see how can we best bring together that supply and demand.”

In developing its strategy, the She Decides team will draw heavily on experts from established organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund, Planned Parenthood and Population Action International, she said. It has also established a diverse group of “Torchbearers” to act as advocates at major events, including young people, private sector representatives and politicians, Ploumen said.

A number of these torchbearers come from the global South, including ministers and former ministers of Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Gorna said she was “thrilled” to see this level of interest.

“It’s hugely important that the Nordic countries and Canada are being so progressive, but at the end of the day, if we are going to achieve genuine change for women, countries in the global South will need to feel [that] this is an agenda they can buy in to, and I think we are seeing that,” she said.

Update, July 25, 2017: This article was amended to clarify that CIFF is making an initial investment of $935,000 in the She Decides support unit.

Update, July 28, 2017: This story was updated to reflect new figures from the She Decides initiative.

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