In today’s world, women’s sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to safe, legal, and affordable abortion are being attacked and rolled back by those in positions of power.
In far too many places, abortion remains an unspoken word, loaded with archaic beliefs about female sexuality and gender, wrapped up with stigma, shame, and discrimination. Take the Mexico City Policy, or global gag rule, for instance: it perpetuates shame and rewards silence, as international health providers that even use the word ‘abortion’ in informing women of their options will lose their funding from the U.S. government.
However, women have never been known to sit and wait for change to happen or to shift their advocacy due to the political jockeying of U.S. politicians. In fact, the U.S. could learn a lot from the work of Global Fund for Women grantee partners across the globe.
Our evidence shows that women have always and continue to lead some of the most progressive movements of resistance and resilience. Just last month, in Chile, the Constitutional Tribunal voted to legalize abortion under three circumstances, easing the country’s total ban on abortion and restoring a right women lost nearly three decades ago under military dictatorship. In Nova Scotia, due to advocacy by women's groups, abortion pills are now free in pharmacies as a way of reducing the barriers to access in Canada. And Mozambique reformed its abortion law in 2014 after activists led efforts of documenting the harmful impact of unsafe practices on women.
At Global Fund for Women, we know that social change takes time, and safe, legal, and affordable abortion requires a holistic approach. We believe in the importance of centering the needs of those who have been the most historically excluded and that supporting grassroots, women-led groups and women’s movements is the key to getting us to the world we want: where all women can access safe, legal, and affordable abortion for all, without stigma, discrimination, or fear of persecution.
What does this mean?
When we think about safe and legal abortion for all women, we consider it within the change matrix that we use at Global Fund for Women to measure progress and capture learnings with our grantee partners and sister organizations. As with many other areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights, abortion is not just about access to women-centered medical services, information, and health care. It is about achieving change at various levels—including shifts in social and cultural norms, changes in laws and policies and ensuring that all women know their rights and how to access them. It’s about how we think of self-determination, and a woman’s agency and power over her own body and life.
It’s also an issue of justice. In many countries, including in the United States and Brazil, a woman’s ability to access safe and legal abortion is deeply interwoven with race, ethnicity, social class, geography, and other factors. These inequities are true between countries as well. While abortions are common around the world, the deaths from abortion are primarily in the global south highlighting one of the most unjust public health discrepancies.
At Global Fund for Women, our approach focuses on investing in grassroots, women-led groups who are leading movements for safe and legal abortion in their communities and countries, and implementing holistic approaches to tackle the various issues.
Take our approach in Poland as one example. When a total ban on abortions was proposed by the government in early 2016, Global Fund for Women supported Federation for Women and Family Planning and ASTRA Network to help them build a powerful movement defending women’s reproductive rights. We intensified our support to help them build a broad coalition of women’s groups and other grassroots organizations across Poland to raise awareness about the threat to women’s health and human rights, and launch effective media campaigns to put pressure on the government throughout 2016 leading up to massive “Black Monday” strikes that led Poland’s parliament to withdraw the proposed legislation in October.
Hundreds of women and men wore all black, boycotted work and school, and took the streets in Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw, and across the country to fight against the law that would make abortion illegal in any instance, with violations bringing a prison sentence of up to five years for women and their doctors. Just days after the mass protests, legislators voted against the proposal.
It was a powerful and critical moment within a long fight: since 1993, Poland has had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with abortion only legal in cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother, and only within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.
Poland is but one example of the power of locally-led efforts supported by global solidarity. This year's theme for September 28th, which is marked as the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, “Resist and Persist”, gives voice and visibility to the many women's organizations and leaders working around the world on a topic that deserves more support, resources, and attention—today and everyday.
We all have a role to play. Let's imagine that another world is possible: one where women’s movements for safe and legal abortion have the funding, resources and power to match their determination, creativity, and resilience!
Written by Musimbi Kanyoro, President & CEO, and Leila Hessini, Vice President of Programs, Global Fund for Women.