A roll back on women’s rights? The impact of the global gag rule

IPPF clinician and female client in Nepal getting sexual health services

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It is the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women.


IPPF convened a panel at CSW61 to examine the far-reaching implications of the US government's Global Gag Rule on the advancement of women’s rights globally.

To open the meeting, IPPF provided context to the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) agenda, reminding us primarily of the huge strides made in recent years on women’s access to SRHR. With an increased policy focus on rights, significant drops in maternal mortality, systematic screening of gender-based violence at health facilities, increased uptake of family planning and post primary school retention of girls, women globally are more empowered to access their rights than ever before.

However, recent political shifts have significantly changed the global landscape which could see these rights severely compromised if not removed entirely.

IPPF provided an overview of the pivotal policies that have marked this shift, most notably the Global Gag Rule (GGR) passed by the Trump administration in January 2017 - an Executive Order which sees U.S. funding denied to health organizations if they use money from other donors to provide abortion services, counselling or referrals. This is accompanied by other damaging policies such as the application of the Kemp-Kasten amendment that could see funding for UNFPA, the world’s largest supplier of contraceptives, dramatically cut.

This is despite evidence showing that the implementation of the GGR under previous Republican administrations did not reduce the number of unsafe abortions; rather, by eliminating access to contraception, it led to more unintended pregnancies and more unsafe abortions.

IPPF also highlighted that it is the most vulnerable women who will suffer most from these policies: they will hit women living at the margins of society hardest – the poorest, women of colour, disabled women, the most remote and those under 25.

And it is not just women’s access to SRHR that's at stake; panelists offered perspectives on how the Global Gag Rule and its potential chilling effect could impact upon their work.

Amnesty International UK outlined the ways in which the Global Gag Rule could increase stigma around abortion and bolster the anti-choice movement. Cutting support to reproductive health sends a clear ideological message on abortion and could serve to embolden ultra conservative, anti-choice and anti-rights attitudes, causing a rollback on women’s rights. This in turn could undermine women’s rights organisations including violating their right to freedom of speech, association, and their ability to participate in the strengthening of their civil societies and holding their governments to account.

Action Aid advised that the reduction in sexual and reproductive health services could also impact upon gender-based violence. They used the example of a series of women’s shelters that they set up in Uganda in partnership with UNFPA to support women escaping domestic violence and rape; the cuts experienced by UNFPA will likely mean these shelters are forced to close down despite the fact they are in no way related to abortion or the provision of reproductive health services. In light of this, Action Aid stressed the need to invest in and support local women's rights organisations who can take on the role of providing shelter and refuge as it is being retracted elsewhere.

JustActions added to the debate by highlighting the extent to which policies like the Global Gag Rule could undermine the achievement of several of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). When you restrict women’s access to products and services that affect their sexual and reproductive health, it is harder to reduce poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2), and is pretty much impossible to improve women’s health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4) and achieve gender equality (SDG 5). Economic growth and sustainability (SDG 8/9) will also suffer as lack of access to SRH impacts upon women's ability to work and it will therefore be harder to close income inequality gaps (SDG 9). That’s almost half of the 17 SDGS compromised right there.

McCann Health, a global communications agency, suggested that in order to better focus attention on these issues and build public support, we need to reach out to sympathetic private sector partners and new communications platforms that could help us make our case to a different audience. Whether through social media based initiatives or formal events and protests, clear and loud communications that are accessible to everyone, do make a difference in the national and global discussion.

Intersectionality, partnership and moving forward

So what can we take from this? The fact that such a diverse range of organizations, some of whom do not even work on SRHR, came together in this high-profile, global space to speak out on the danger of these policies demonstrates just how wide-ranging and profound the implications could be.

It also highlights the intersectionality of the issues at stake; it is very difficult to move towards women’s economic, political and social empowerment without access to sexual and reproductive rights and vice versa. This calls for a more holistic approach to women’s empowerment that does not isolate issues but acknowledges interlinkages and looks to foster cooperation and partnership where possible; be it through advocacy, campaigns or programmes.

Perhaps most importantly, the impassioned speeches given by senior representatives from influential CSOs and the private sector calling for a progressive SRHR agenda show us that whilst the policy landscape is changing, so is our support base. And whilst the GGR may loom large on our horizon, we also see a groundswell of organisations, individuals and governments rising up in support of those who will be affected, and exploring ways to mitigate the financial and human cost of this policy.

Ultimately this panel was about solidarity. Solidarity in the face of adversity. Solidarity for progress. Solidarity for human rights. And solidarity for women everywhere. And that at the very least is what CSW should foster. Long may it do so.


WANT TO GET INVOLVED?