International Women’s Day is a celebration. One way to celebrate women is to give each woman the resources and empowerment to make educated decisions about their own lives and reproductive choices.
In my high school health class, we were taught an abstinence+ curriculum. This meant that while we had to listen to lesson plans about how “the best way to not get pregnant is to not have sex,” we also knew that if we sat tight and got through the first few weeks we would be given the chance to gain real knowledge about condoms, birth control, and STI prevention. I’m lucky that I was given this level of comprehensive information, since the state of Maryland is not required to provide medically accurate information in its curriculum – along with over 20 other states. Many abstinence-based lesson plans give false information about the effectiveness of contraception methods and STIs, if they even mention them at all.
The US has federally funded domestic abstinence based sexual education programs for over 30 years, despite the fact that studies from the Guttmacher Institute show that abstinence-only sexual education is ineffective. In fact it often leads to higher rates of unplanned pregnancies and STIs and does little to deter a teen’s choice to become sexually active, although it does often deter use of contraception. The federal funding of abstinence based sexual education programs in the US is certainly troubling, but is even more troubling when we look at the effects on a global scale.
HIV/AIDS and complications from pregnancy and child birth are two of the top causes of female deaths across the globe. In addition, over 220 million women report that they would like to control their family planning but do not have the contraceptives or education to do so. The government has taken positive steps to solve this global crisis through programs such as PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Yet, rather than distributing the money to indigenous comprehensive health organizations or to fight condom shortages abroad, portions of the funding continue to be distributed to faith based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
In Bangladesh, portions of PEPFAR funding have been distributed to religious leaders and training of imams who are fundamentally opposed to contraception. In addition, some funds allocated for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) have been distributed to partners to work with educational institutions that focus solely on serving young men and addressing male issues, ignoring the needs of the female population. During both the Bush and Obama administration, very little USAID funding for SRHR has gone to indigenous women-led organizations dedicated to providing education and contraception to local families.
If we annually provide contraceptives to 215 million women of developing nations who want to prevent pregnancy we can prevent 150,000 maternal deaths from pregnancy-related complications, 53 million unplanned pregnancies, and 25 million induced abortions. For every 1 billion dollars in US funding for sexual and reproductive health abroad, maternal deaths would fall by 40,000 and infant deaths by 700,000. Investment in comprehensive sexual and reproductive health abroad not only contributes to reduced maternal deaths, it also contributes to gender equality, environmental sustainability, and reduction of poverty.
This International Women’s Day, I will be pressuring the US to become a leader in reducing maternal mortality, to increase its reproductive health aid to developing nations, and to decrease our funding of abstinence based programs at home and abroad.