LONDON — The United Kingdom government’s £600 million ($750 million) pledge to support family planning in low-income countries has been applauded by advocates in the wake of opposition to the issue from the United States and other conservative nations.
International development secretary Alok Sharma announced the new funding package to world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday, cementing the U.K.’s reputation as a leading family planning donor.
“With the U.S. government and others now reversing at speed from their previous commitments … it’s heartening to see the U.K. holding the line.”— Simon Cooke, CEO, Marie Stopes International
“This U.K. aid will help give millions of women and girls control over their bodies, so they can choose if, when and how many children they want. That is a basic right that every woman and girl deserves,” Sharma said, adding that, “we cannot achieve universal health coverage without universal sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
He made the announcement during a meeting on universal health care, at which the U.S. spoke out strongly against SRHR, calling for the phrase “sexual and reproductive health and rights” to be dropped from U.N. documents.
“We do not support references to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.N. documents, because they can undermine the critical role of the family and promote practices like abortion,” Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told delegates.
Speaking on behalf of the U.S. and a number of religiously conservative countries in a prepared joint statement, Azar added: “Such terms do not adequately take into account the key role of the family in health and education, nor the sovereign right of nations to implement health policies according to their national context.”
The U.K.’s support for SRHR in this context was heralded by supporters as a significant move, and described by one advocate, who asked not to be named, as a “slap in the face” for the U.S.
Simon Cooke, CEO at Marie Stopes International, commented: “With the U.S. government and others now reversing at speed from their previous commitments on sexual and reproductive health and rights, it’s heartening to see the U.K. holding the line to ensure that more women and girls can access essential family planning services.”
“We applaud DFID’s leadership in this area,” he added.
The five-year funding package represents the U.K.’s biggest standalone investment to family planning to date, and will include abortion-related services in countries where it is legal. The Department for International Development calculates that the extra funding will provide more than 20 million women and girls with access to family planning, prevent over 5 million unintended pregnancies and avoid 1.5 million unsafe abortions every year.
The investment includes support for the U.N. population fund’s UNFPA supplies program, which is the world’s largest provider of contraceptives and reproductive health services. It operates in 46 countries with the highest rates of maternal mortality and lowest rates of modern contraceptive use. It will help UNFPA’s ongoing efforts to fill the $69 million funding hole left by the U.S. decision to cut it off in 2017.
A portion of the funding will also be spent supporting women in humanitarian settings, including Syria, Yemen, and in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Julia Bunting, head of the Population Council, said it was positive to see DFID underscoring the centrality of SRHR to all aspects of development.
“The evidence is clear that investing in sexual and reproductive health is not only essential to advancing the rights of women and girls, but to lifting up entire communities and countries,” she told Devex in an email.