UN Agencies Enlist African First Ladies to Sanitize “Reproductive Health” and Sex Ed
NEW YORK, October 6 (C-Fam) A recent UN event embodied a decades-long contradiction between UN staff and some UN member states who have opposite understandings of whether the term “reproductive health” includes abortion.
The United Nations Population Fund, with the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which promotes abortion as part of reproductive health, held an event with first ladies from Africa, where abortion is frequently illegal or strictly limited, to promote reproductive health in strictly positive terms.
The first ladies focused on the issues of child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and sexual violence against adolescent girls, who account for a high percentage of new HIV infections in Africa.
The opening keynote speaker was the First Lady of Sierra Leone, who quoted a definition of “sexual and reproductive rights” from Amnesty International USA, which states that the term was “most clearly defined” at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) as including access to abortion only “where legal.” Abortion is illegal in Sierra Leone.
Abortion was only rarely mentioned at the event, and only in the context of something to be avoided or prevented among adolescent girls, particularly by eradicating the practice of child marriage, which remains prevalent in some African countries. Even the head of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Tewodros Melesse, departed from past practice and stayed away from controversial topics in his remarks.
In fact, several first ladies used the opportunity to speak positively about the family and African culture and tradition, both of which are frequently characterized at the UN as barriers to sexual and reproductive rights. The First Lady of Burkina Faso quoted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights description of the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society,” while the First Lady of Namibia referred to traditional practices as “the glue that keeps our societies together.”
The First Lady of Nigeria stressed the importance for adolescent girls of understanding the balance of freedom and responsibility, especially in the context of sex education, which she said must teach about the “dangers of indulgence and licentious behavior and the importance of abstinence and self-control.”
Several First Ladies, as well as representatives of UNESCO and UNFPA spoke positively about “comprehensive sexuality education” (CSE) as a way to prevent HIV infections and educate girls about puberty and reproductive biology. No mention was made of the controversies surrounding CSE, including age-inappropriate curricula and the promotion of abortion and homosexual behavior, some of which is illegal in many African countries.
The First Lady of Namibia spoke about the importance of respecting national priorities, pointing out that although female genital mutilation is not prevalent in her country, groups “whose agenda is set in New York and Washington” kept bringing it up with Namibian government ministers. In contrast, she praised the initiative founded by President George W. Bush’s to combat HIV, since it worked to strengthen and support existing national agendas rather than trying to push a one-size-fits-all approach.
The overarching question of what “reproductive health” for adolescent girls will mean on the ground depends on whether it will be interpreted by governments like Namibia’s or by IPPF and wealthy donor countries seeking to establish abortion as an international human right.