International Women's Day: Hold the Champagne

A year ago, the U.S. was in a position of global leadership on women's issues. What a difference a year makes. Congress -- or at least the U.S. House of Representatives -- is in full retreat.
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For years now, March 8, International Women's Day, has been a cause for celebration. And with this year being the Global Centenary Year, there's special cause for celebration. But hold the champagne -- there's more cause for concern this year than celebration.

A year ago, the United States was in a position of global leadership on women's issues. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were making the empowerment of women a defining issue in U.S. foreign policy, and the health and welfare of girls and women was seen as central to the fortunes of the developing world.

What a difference a year makes. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have not relented, but Congress -- or at least the U.S. House of Representatives -- is in full retreat. Budget hawks, in the name of deficit reduction, have proposed eliminating Title X funding for U.S. family planning assistance and, at the same time, slashing U.S. support for international family planning and reproductive health services. And family planning is not the only budget target. A wide variety of programs aimed at protecting the health of women and children could end up taking over-sized hits. When it comes to deficit reduction, apparently the new mantra is, "Women and children, first."

The U.S. and the world are awash with problems, but there is no problem that I can think of -- including debt accumulation -- that would be ameliorated by denying women access to contraceptives and reproductive health services. You don't make the world a better place by endangering the lives of women or diminishing their ability to prevent unwanted or unintended pregnancies. And you certainly don't reduce the burden to be borne by future generations by denying women access to health care.

Rather than celebrating, supporters of women's rights should be redoubling their efforts. As part of its poverty-fighting Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the United Nations has set 2015 at the target year for achieving universal access to family planning and other reproductive health services. But that target will not be reached if the U.S. and other donor nations fail to deliver on their promises.

An estimated 215 million women in the developing world want to avoid a pregnancy, but are not currently using a modern method of birth control. Providing family planning services and information to them would cost an additional $3.6 billion a year. In the scale of global finance that's small change, but the benefits that would flow from it are truly enormous. Expanding family planning services to 215 million women would empower women, dramatically reduce maternal and infant mortality rates, keep girls in school longer, improve food security in food-dependent countries, and help break the cycle of poverty that now afflicts many developing nations. In many areas of the world, it would also reduce environmental stress, and ease concerns about water scarcity.

There's a lot at stake here. That's why family planning advocates recently launched a global petition campaign to build donor nation support for an increase in international family planning assistance. This international Women's Day, we should all take a moment to tell Congress and world leaders that there is no excuse for retreating on the status and welfare of women.

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