Abortion: Seeking exceptions to the Global Gag Rule

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By Nyisom Fiyigon Dore,

Nana, 14, wakes up petrified. It is 5:30 a.m. She was supposed to be up by 4:00 a.m., but was deep asleep and did not hear her angry aunt howling for hot water to bath with.

Though scared, she slowly and quietly walks into the kitchen, greeted her aunt, but the response was discomforting.

“Are you just waking up?’’ Mrs. Alfred growled. “I am sorry,’’ Nana muttered, shaking.

The angry woman rains slaps on poor Nana, sending her to the grown. Not done, she made to give more slaps but suddenly stopped on realising that Nana appeared to have to have fainted.

Unsure whether the girl had indeed fainted or was just pretending, she took a more critical look at the almost naked teenager and the woman in her told her that something was wrong somewhere. Her little breasts appeared firmer and her complexion lighter.

Further checks confirmed Mrs Alfred’s fears. The poor girl was pregnant ! That was not even the most devastating news for the woman. Little Nana’s father was responsible for the 14-week-old pregnancy.

Nana was just seven when she started living with her aunt following the death of her mother. An only child, the responsibility became huge for the father, Mr Dimas, a trader, who had always been heavily dependent on his wife.

Though his daughter often visits on holidays, Dimas is yet to get over his loss and always wished Nana, who is a complete replica of her mother, and reminded him so much of her, could live with him permanently.

Nana had returned from one of such holidays just two months ago.

Since this reality dawned on Mrs Alfred, she has been pondering over what step to take to help her late sister’s daughter. She had considered terminating the pregnancy and ran to an NGO for counseling but was turned back by the outfit over fears of running foul of the Global Gag Rule.

U. S. President Ronald Reagan enacted the GGR, which prohibits foreign NGOs, who receive U.S. global health assistance, from providing legal abortion services or referrals, while also barring advocacy for abortion law reforms, even if it is done with the NGO’s personal, non-U.S. funds.

The policy allows access to abortion only in very rare cases.

Reagan first enacted the GGR, also known as the Mexico City Policy, in 1984. Every administration after Reagan, always took fresh decisions on the policy, making NGO funding vulnerable to political changes happening in the U.S.

The rule forces organisations to choose whether to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and education without U.S. funding, or comply with the policy in order to continue accepting U.S. funds.

In 2017, President Donald Trump’s Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy expanded the global gag rule, applying it to recipients of any U.S. global health funding, totaling an unprecedented 8.8 billion dollars. This means that everything, from HIV and AIDS programming and health systems strengthening to programmes that support water, sanitation, and hygiene, are negatively impacted.

In 2019, the Trump administration announced a further expansion of the implementation of the global gag rule, restricting “gagged organisations from funding groups that provide abortion services and information, even though those organisations do not get any U.S. aid. This means that organisations, donor governments and funders will be bound by a U.S. government policy, even if they do not accept any U.S. government funding.

Nigeria, with so many challenges, has recently become a breeding ground for monsters that have continued to prey upon innocent women and girls. Rape and sexual assault has continued to rise unabated with many of such cases leading to deaths of little girls, young women and even infants. Most of the offenders, unfortunately, are usually relations or supposed loved ones.

Unarguably, cases of rape, child abuse, trafficking in persons and other sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) have increased in recent times in Nigeria, as the scary statistics of women and girls being raped and abused on daily basis from different parts of the country keep rising, sparking wild and wide reactions.

Figures released by the Inspector-General of Police, Muhammed Adamu, showed that the Police received 717 cases of rape between January and May.

Adamu said that 799 suspects were arrested over alleged rape offences, 631 of the cases successfully investigated, 57 persons prosecuted and convicted, while 52 cases are still under prosecution.

What can the populous African nation do to mitigate the impact of such a dangerous trend that threatens to tear the fabric of its existence, seeing that it certainly cannot be able to tame all these monsters that are on the prowl?

What other means can Nigeria employ to create an exception to the GGR without risking effective operations of donor agencies such as Ipas, which is in the frontline of this battle?

It is not a secret that nearly 50 per cent of global HIV and AIDS funding comes from the U.S. government; and unfortunately, under Trump’s expanded global gag rule, the quality and availability of HIV services, including treatment, testing, and prevention, are being threatened.

With the GGR effectively in place, if a foreign NGO on reproductive health refuses to sign up to uphold the policy, it will lose all U.S funding and technical expertise provided by its agencies such as the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID).

This means that under the expanded GGR, non-U.S. NGOs will not be able to receive any of the country’s funds if they provided safe abortion services, counseling, referrals or advocacy work, even if they used personal funds.

With this, NGOs, who are already suffering from significant funding shortages due to their decision to continue to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care, will have to struggle to help those in need.

Important coalitions, networks and movements that advocate for human rights, such as abortion reforms and sex workers’ rights, will lose momentum due to the chilling effect the global gag rule has on advocacy and collaboration between groups that are gagged and those that are not.

At a recent three-day “Media Training for Journalists on Women’s Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights/Global Gag Rule’’, in Keffi, Nasarawa State, organised by Ipas, stakeholders had made attempts to study and understand the GGR, and its implications and consequences on the health of the Nigerian woman.

The stakeholders expressed worry that the lives of millions of Nigerian women, who would want to avoid pregnancy, but lacked access to modern contraception, were at risk.

The Country Director of Ipas (Nigeria), Mr Lucky Palmer, in a presentation, noted that every eight minutes, a woman in a developing country dies of complications from unsafe abortion.

“In addition, an estimated 285,000 women, within the same period, have complications from unsafe abortion serious enough to require treatment in health facilities, but will not obtain the care they need,’’ Palmer said.

He said that the figures suggest that unsafe abortion has become a major contributor to the country’s high levels of maternal death, ill health and disability.

According to the Ipas representative, of the 85 million women who get pregnant annually, 40 million of them usually end up having abortions, with developing countries accounting for 98 per cent of the unsafe abortions.

Ipas also said that Africa and Latin America accounted for the highest number of unsafe abortions globally.

The organisation expressed sadness that Nigeria was yet to reform restrictive domestic laws and policies that placed women and girls’ health and lives at risk.

It also said that Nigeria was preventing women from exercising rights that the government had committed to, under the international law.

Ipas noted further: “In 2012 alone, 1.25 million Nigerian women had an abortion, doubling the number estimated in 1996, and with the GGR, the numbers will increase and the situation can only get worse.’’

Ipas emphasised that deliberate urgent steps must be taken by all stakeholders to make exceptions to the rule or find ways of mitigating its impact on the future of women because only 16 per cent of all women of reproductive age were using contraceptive, and just 11 per cent are using the modern methods.

“That results in almost 10 million unintended pregnancies out of which more than half end in an induced abortion,’’ Palmer noted.

The country director also blamed the worrying global health challenge on the Global Gag rule, noting that the training of journalists to help with awareness and advocacy was one of the ways the organisation was exploring to tackle the issue.

According to him, a big burden is on the media to work closely with relevant organisations in advocating for the enforcement of laws and domestication of Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, to promote women’s sexual rights and health, create awareness, and educate the public on consequences of unsafe abortions.

Delivering a paper on GGR and its impact on women’s sexual health, Dr Abiola Afolabi of the Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), said the rule was limiting women from legally accessing abortion and further taking away their right to make informed choices about their future.

Afolabi suggested that exceptions could be made to the GGR by opposing the policy, pressing government to increase the country’s health budget, and making available information on the implication of failure to address the issue.

She consequently called for the de-criminalisation of abortion by those saddled with the mandate of making responsible and responsive policies that were in the overall interest of citizens and the world at large.

Also in a presentation, Mr Emma Ugoji, a journalist and a facilitator at the workshop, highlighted the role of the media in achieving the set goals.

Ugoji stressed that without the media, there would continue to be misconceptions about Women’s Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (WSRHR), which is currently being threatened by the GGR.

He said that women, girls and children, especially the vulnerable and poor, were suffering, adding that pregnant women also keep suffering from disruptions in reproductive health services.

According to him, the policy causes more unintended pregnancies, higher rates of maternal mortality, and an increase in unsafe abortions.

The veteran journalist noted that the global gag rule had not decreased rates of abortions.

“It has, instead, increased the number of unsafe abortions,’’ he said, urging stakeholders to speak out on the need for safe abortions since U.S. funded NGOs had been gagged and could not drive home any campaign.

Ugoji urged the media to be the instrument through which campaigns for exceptions to the GGR would be made and the goal achieved.

Analysts agree with Ugoji and have pointed out that it is only through such exceptions that little Nana will be saved the trauma of giving birth to a son or daughter that will be both her child and brother or sister, in addition to the even more severe consequences of a bleak, blank and black future

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