Drawn by the promise of helping poor women, over 3,000 power-brokers, policy-makers and aid workers gathered in Kuala Lumpur this week for Women Deliver, a global conference on women’s health.
A billionaire and a princess graced the stage to tell nurses and clean water advocates that any effort to help poor women is secondary to giving them contraception and abortion.
Sexual and reproductive rights are “at the core of human life,” said Princess Mary of Denmark. Until women have power not to have children, they won’t have power to improve nutrition, grow crops, or deliver babies safely, said Melinda Gates.
“Pregnancy is not natural,” said Frances Kissling, the former head of Catholics for Choice.
And with that, the sharp divide became apparent between first-world activists who want a universal right to abortion and the poor women they believe should have fewer children.
Abortion advocates organized Women Deliver to grow their coalition and motivate people to demand government-guaranteed access to contraception and abortion. The conference takes place as the U.N. is deciding what will be included in the new development goals to come after the Millennium Development Goals.
The first Women Deliver in 2007 presented family planning and abortion as the solution to reduce deaths from pregnancy and childbirth. The second conference in 2010 ran into trouble when new research showed the annual number of maternal deaths is far less than the estimated 536,000.
Attendees complained this year’s conference offered no program to address maternal mortality except to enhance midwives to be trained to provide abortion.
Millions of women and girls are isolated and stigmatized because they lack menstruation hygiene. Advocates for clean water have taken up their cause. “Menstrual hygiene is a core sexual and reproductive right” they said.
WaterAid repeatedly asked Women Deliver organizers to highlight the issue in a plenary session. They were ignored.
Instead, they were allotted an after-hours slot for a workshop.
Each year, 4 million people – mostly women and children – die from exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves. Non-communicable diseases like diarrhea claim 1.4 million lives. Half of them are children. These received scant attention at Women Deliver.
In the Cinema Corner at the back of an exhibit hall, a Kenyan doctor came seeking help with a documentary he produced. It shows how women are dying during childbirth due to cultural taboos and superstitions that keep women from going to hospitals to deliver their babies. No conference convener was present during his presentation.
Meanwhile, Melinda Gates detailed the progress of her multi-billion dollar family planning campaign on Women Deliver’s main stage. Government officials recounted how their countries have fulfilled their pledges made at last year’s Summit.
Senegal is stocking village clinics’ empty shelves with various forms of contraceptives. Philippines passed a controversial reproductive health bill. Though it is being challenged, the government bought supplies before the Supreme Court rules in mid-June.
Gates campaign employs a public/private business model of buying mass quantities of products, creating efficient distribution to far-reaching areas, with the guaranteed revenue of government budget commitments.
A Women Deliver participant noted $8 billion a year goes to family planning and advocates are demanding more. Yet “they don’t want to share it” with other causes. “And they don’t want to give any other group a platform that will distract from expanding abortion.”
This article originally published at C-FAM.
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