While attention has been focused on the tumult around US President Donald Trump’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US officials quietly renewed a decision made last year to block funding for the UN Population Fund – known as UNFPA.
It’s hard to know exactly what justification the Administration has advanced for this decision – the notification the Trump administration sent to Congress is classified “sensitive” and thus the public has not seen it. However, the UN Population Fund has been told that, like last year, the Trump administration is claiming it violates the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which blocks US aid to any organization the US determines is involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Last year, the determination provided zero evidence that the Population Fund favors or directly supports coercive abortions or involuntary sterilizations. Rather, it cited the Population Fund’s partnership with the Chinese government on family planning programs, and US concerns about the Chinese government’s abusive reproductive health policies – which include a two-child limit per family and coerced gynecological exams to check for out-of-quota pregnancies – as the basis for the determination.
UN Population Fund is an agency that goes where few others do – into war zones and countries wracked by natural disasters – to try to make sure that pregnant women and girls get health care, can deliver babies safely, and are protected from gender-based violence, even as the world falls apart around them. There is more need than they can address, and without US funding even more women will fall through the cracks.
Human Rights Watch sees Population Fund’s work firsthand around the world. My colleague recently shared her experience visiting the agency’s facilities in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari refugee camp, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live. Since 2012, 8,500 babies have been born there with the Population Fund’s help, and no mothers have died from childbirth-related causes. Additionally, girls can play in safe spaces. “There is nowhere else in Zataari” that serves this role, my colleague said.
The US is one of the largest core donors for UNFPA and blocking this money will hurt its core functions of addressing gender-based violence, child marriage, and female genital mutilations. The US has also been crucial to supporting the Population Fund’s emergency work – it was a primary donor to Zaatari’s maternal health facility – and the loss of these funds is devastating. The US Congress should keep funding UNFPA, even if the administration blocks the release of the funds. Moreover, the Senate should take a leadership role in finding a solution to preserve the important US role in supporting the Population Fund’s crisis response. Women and girls around the world are counting on it.