Scholars weigh in on Global Gag Rule

US President Donald Trump has re-instated a strict stipulation on USAID funding, commonly known as the Gag Rule, which prohibits support to any organisations providing abortion services, referrals, or information to their clients. This is a short-sighted initiative which will cause clinics to shut down, and result in vital contraceptive and maternal health services being cut off for vulnerable women and girls around the world. Public health experts have predicted a multitude of knock-on effects, including an increase in unplanned pregnancies, more women seeking unsafe, backstreet abortions, and a rise in maternal mortality rates.

One of the regions that will be hardest hit by this reactionary executive order is southern Africa, where full access to sexual and reproductive rights remain a distant goal for millions of women. Many Canon Collins scholars and alumni, working in the fields of public health, human rights, and gender equality, will find themselves acutely affected by this new law. We spoke to some of them about their initial reaction to the Gag Rule, and the practical and psychological impact that it could have on their work.

Charmaine Picardo is a gender rights expert and activist who recently completed her MA Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. She works with young people in Zimbabwe, promoting awareness of sexual health and reproductive rights.

She says: The Gag Rule will have far reaching and devastating effects. It takes away gains made in addressing gender equality issues, especially women’s reproductive health rights. The picture of Trump signing the bill alongside six other men is telling; there isn’t a single woman visible in the picture, and chances are there were no women present when the bill was discussed and signed.

The effects will be most felt most acutely by poor women who cannot access private healthcare, those who have limited access to contraception, and women with limited negotiating power for safer sex and inadequate means to raise children if they fall pregnant. The prevalence of deaths and illnesses from unsafe abortions in southern Africa is already alarmingly high; the Gag Rule will escalate this crisis.

The right to information is a fundamental human right; sometimes having adequate information on an issue especially when looking at sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) can be the difference between life and death. Many governments in southern Africa already have restrictions on abortions and in some countries for example my own (Zimbabwe), it remains illegal. NGOs have been working tirelessly to provide adequate information on SRHR issues, including safe abortions and post-abortion care, as well as advocating for a shift away from conservative SRHR legislation. Some of these funds came from USAID and other US State Department initiatives, so this policy will shut down a lot of vital projects in the region.”

Onke Mazibuko is a public health specialist who manages the Health portfolio at the Transnet Foundation. Prior to this, Onke worked and lived aboard the Phelophepa Healthcare Train, which brings vital health services to South Africans living in rural and disadvantaged communities.

He says: “My initial reaction when I heard the news of the Gag Rule and prohibition of funding was one of disbelief. Unfortunately in the public health sphere, discussions are often held at the highest level, without any understanding of the context on the ground. I regularly see flawed decisions being made, with political or business interests in mind, at the expense of the immediate health care needs of poor and vulnerable people. Inevitably, it is the people on the ground level, especially in rural communities, that suffer as a result. I have no doubt that the context in which the administration of President Trump has made this decision is completely cut off from the ground level context where it will be felt most.

The negative message this sends out to those who are fighting for gender equality is massive and the withdrawal of funds will be hard felt in our communities. We still have a very long way to go in addressing issues of gender inequality in southern Africa and this Gag Rule certainly undermines these efforts. The withdrawal of USAID grants will seriously hamper some excellent work done by organisations that rely on such funding, and the reduction of vital services will have major physical and psychological consequences for many women and young girls from this region.”

Tumelo Kwape is a practicing attorney and the founder of an NGO that offers legal assistance to women and advocates for women’s rights in Botswana. Tumelo decided to study an MPhil in Medical Law with the aim of defending women’s medical rights, as well as contributing to the development of more progressive health laws in Botswana.

She says: “I believe that safe abortion and access to contraception are the most vital components of women’s reproductive health care. The complete disregard for these rights, as epitomised by the Gag Rule, indicates a very brutal and harmful reality that will thwart much of the recent progress made in Africa and the rest of the world towards recognizing women’s sexual reproductive health rights.

The damage that is going to be suffered by individual women and communities, as a result of this misguided policy, is beyond imagination. Denying a woman access to contraception and safe abortion makes her extremely vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortion and maternal mortality. It also goes without saying that it will give a rise to diseases affecting the reproductive system that may permanently damage women’s reproductive organs.

This is a setback and very sad reality but I remain optimistic that through continued advocacy and activism, our efforts to obtain respect for and recognition of women’s sexual reproductive rights will bear fruit in the end.”

Jody Metcalfe is currently studying for an MPhil Justice and Transformation at University of Cape Town. Her Master’s research is influenced by a strong commitment to the alleviation of gender based violence and bridging the gap between the constitution and reality in terms of how people access rights and justice in South Africa.

She says: “This order is of course going to impact sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) around the world, and particularly on the African continent. US funding of public health initiatives in South Africa is significant, with HIV/AIDS research, for example, receiving huge levels of funding through American NGOs, and government grants. This is now at risk.

The Gag Rule would seem to be polarizing SRHR into a heteronormative idea of what rights are ‘acceptable’ for women to have.  I don’t think we can consider SRHR without having open discussions about abortion. In South Africa, access to abortion or even information about abortion is already extremely limited and one-sided with education focusing primarily on the promotion of abstinence. This ban continues to enforce the idea that women only have abortions because they are irresponsible or promiscuous, whereas, in reality, women often have no choice but to abort their child due to health risks and complications, or extreme poverty. Others might be in sexual relationships where their power to negotiate for safe sex is limited or they have none at all or they might be survivors of sexual assault – these are all contributing factors as to why women have abortions.

This ban will not halt abortions, nor prevent people from seeking them out. It will only make accessing them more dangerous, and stigmatize women and girls for asserting their reproductive rights.”