Twenty years ago at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, women’s rights advocates and national governments across the world came together to affirm the rights of women and commit to gender equality. It was at that conference when then-First Lady Hillary Clinton declared that “women’s rights are human rights.” It was also at Beijing when the U.S. joined the global community to reaffirm commitments made the previous year at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights as part of the women’s rights agenda.
Since Beijing, the U.S. has made great strides in advancing gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and human rights in the U.S. and globally. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has shown clear commitment to promoting gender equality, and to addressing gender-based violence against women and girls, as evidenced in the USAID Strategy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment and the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.
More recently, the U.S. submitted its report on the Implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, in which the U.S. endorses a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment into Sustainable Development Goals. It also made it a U.S. priority to improve “universal access to sexual and reproductive health services” and to promote “women’s reproductive rights.”
The recently stated commitment to reproductive rights is most welcome. Twenty years ago in Beijing, the U.S. committed to assist governments and NGOs in full implementation of making abortion safe in countries where it is legal, and to assist governments in the review of laws that are punitive toward women who have undergone illegal abortions.
Twenty years later, the U.S. has failed to act on its promise.
The U.S. has not helped advance access to safe abortion services where it is legal. It has failed to act even for women and girls who survive rape in conflict. The most egregious example of this failure can be found in the Helms amendment – a decades-old restriction on U.S. foreign assistance. While the law does not permit U.S. funding for abortions overseas as a “method of family planning,” it does not prohibit funds for abortions in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Despite this distinction, no administration has ever interpreted the law correctly.
This is particularly troubling given that some countries that receive U.S. foreign assistance have made progress on their own commitments made in Beijing and Cairo, and have changed laws and policies related to abortion. In 2004, Ethiopia liberalized its law to allow abortion in the case of rape or incest, for the health and life of the woman, in addition to other conditions. And Kenya’s new constitution, adopted in 2010, permits access to abortion in some cases. Where is the U.S. promise to help these and other countries ensure women have access to safe abortions?
Twenty years after Beijing the U.S. has stated that sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights are a priority. It is time to turn words into action. President Obama can and should take executive action to interpret the Helms amendment correctly, and allow U.S. funding to support safe abortion for women and girls in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.
If the U.S. truly believes that women’s rights are human rights, and that reproductive rights are a priority in the post-2015 development agenda, it must stand with the world’s women and the governments that support their rights.
The time to act is now.