Historic Nairobi Summit asks: what have the past 25 years delivered for the world’s women and girls?

Latanya Mapp Frett
Nov 15 · 4 min read

End poverty, end patriarchy. Could it be that these two goals are more intimately linked than ever before? A recent summit was a rubber-hits-the-road moment for those who are interested in doing both. Government leaders, politicians, and civil society gathered in Nairobi, Kenya for a United Nations (UN) Summit on population and development, November 12 - 14. I joined these delegates to follow up on commitments made 25 years ago at the original International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)– and to continue to advocate for grassroots women’s voices to be not only present but fully heeded in these global conversations, processes, and policies that will help determine our futures.

25 years ago this conference helped usher in a paradigm shift when feminist advocates came together and demanded that governments set gender equality as a cornerstone of international development.

We’ve come far since 1994, but not nearly far enough. Over the last two decades, global maternal mortality has fallen and there has been a 25 percent increase in ability to access contraception. But still, astoundingly, 214 million women around the world want and don’t have access to contraception. One in every three women experiences violence in her lifetime, the majority of which is intimate partner violence.

In some ways we are further from consensus on gender equality than we were 25 years ago. Global opposition and backlash to feminist progress — from Trump’s expanded global gag rule, to anti-gender ideology , to national regressive policies — remains stringent and real.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith recently published outdated and extreme views on global reproductive rights in which he accused entire governments (Kenya, Denmark) and civil society of “hijacking” the ICPD. These false notions stifle progress towards development goals, and comprise a human rights failure. Ironically, he accused Kenya of hijacking a conference taking place in its own national capital, when in fact he is a U.S.-based male politician trying to legislate and control women’s bodies around the globe.

Advancing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights including abortion access saves lives and is a foundation for healthy women, families, and societies. Grassroots women’s and community groups already know this — to remain relevant at the global level and save lives, we need only listen.

The stakes could not be higher.

The reinstatement and expansion of the global gag rule by President Trump in 2017 is a major barrier to progress. The global gag rule prohibits U.S. funding for organizations providing services, referrals, and advocacy related to abortion abroad. The U.S. is the largest donor to global health and the global gag rule applies to all 8.8 billion in U.S. aid. Because health services integrate HIV prevention and treatment, contraception, abortion, and family care in their programming, the global gag rule shuts people out of all sorts of health related care.

It is dismantling important, life-saving work. For example, Rhythm of Life, a Ugandan health nonprofit my organization supports, serves women in red-light districts. The organization sets up clinics to provide HIV and STI testing, maternal health care, and contraception to some of the country’s most vulnerable people. “Often, it is the only health care that is accessible to people in such communities,” said Harriet Kamashanyu, the organization’s founder and executive director. “The global gag rule limits our coverage and general operations,” Kamashanyu said. “We simply watch many girls and women of Uganda die due to unsafe abortion.”

The tension between the promise of grassroots reproductive justice work, like Rhythm of Life’s, and the deadly effects of government opposition was front and center in Nairobi.

“The main tactic is to continue the advocacy [against the global gag rule] and not stop,” says Rakshya Paudyal, a program manager at Beyond Beijing Committee, a Nepal-based feminist human rights organization working for gender equality.

Thousands of miles away from Nairobi, we are also watching reproductive rights gains crippled by funding restrictions in the U.S. as Title X restrictions curtail abortion access. Current U.S. policy can determine if a mother in Kampala can access contraception, and if a woman in Birmingham can get the abortion she wants. These reproductive rights restrictions have the same effect in any geography — they put vulnerable women at risk.

What governments committed to during the summit is important. But what was talked about during the UN conference will be actualized by feminists’ work on the ground. In tandem with new high-level agreements, we need funding — particularly for the women activists fighting for their rights, daily, in their own communities. Currently only 1 percent of gender equality funding gets to the grassroots. Yet it is these grassroots movements that disrupt the status quo, win rights, and drive progress.

What governments and civil society commit to — and fund — has the power to save lives and transform generations. 25 years ago, governments and civil society agreed to get to three zeros — zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning, and zero gender-based violence. We agreed that: “The full and equal participation of women in civil, cultural, economic, political and social life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex, are priority objectives of the international community.”

It’s past time to make good on those promises.

This article was published in Ms Magazine.

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