Canada pledges millions for global sexual health. But is it enough?

The Liberals have not committed to raising Canada's overall aid budget, which stands at less than 0.3 per cent of gross national income—below the UN target of 0.7 per cent

OTTAWA – The federal government is pledging up to $20 million to fund sexual health and abortion-related projects as part of an international campaign to fill a gap created by President Donald Trump’s decision to ban U.S. funding for abortion-related programs.

The money will go to five organizations, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and be spent in the coming 12 months on contraceptives, family planning and comprehensive sexuality education, abortion services where they are legal and access to post-abortion care.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said funding sexual education and abortion where it is legal is a matter of human rights.

“The idea is really to give women the choice,” Bibeau told reporters in a conference call from Brussels. “We’re not forcing anyone into it.

“Having the control over our own body is, to me, the first step for women’s rights and it’s a matter of choice and having access to the information, the services and the supplies.”

Aid agency Save the Children welcomed the pledge, saying that the money could help save the lives of women, adolescents and girls in the most remote regions of the world.

An anti-abortion group, Campaign Life Coalition, called on the government to redirect the money to provide better nutrition, clean water, medicine and safe deliveries overseas. The group said in a release that the money signalled an abandonment of the country’s previous commitment to improving maternal health.

A major aid agency said it welcomed any financial help Canada can provide, but warned that if the country is really serious about helping poor women in the developing world, it must increase the overall amount it spends on international aid.

Lauren Ravon, Oxfam’s Canadian director of policy and campaigns, said Canada’s decision to take part in Thursday’s pledging conference in Brussels — known as “She Decides” — is welcome.

Bibeau represented Canada at the meeting, where some 50 countries are trying to raise $600 million to fill the shortfall caused by Trump’s decision.

One of Trump’s first acts as president was to resurrect a policy withholding hundreds of millions of dollars a year from groups that perform abortions or provide advice about the procedure.

The ban has been instituted by successive Republican administrations dating back to the Ronald Reagan era, only to be rolled back by successive Democratic presidents since then.

Trump’s order reversed Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to restore funding.

Bibeau said the international community doesn’t have a clear picture of what impact Trump’s decision will have. She said the almost $200 million pledged Thursday was encouraging because there are few governments that can make significant financial commitments on short notice.

The Trudeau government made a similar decision after winning power in 2015 by allowing funding for family planning in projects related to the maternal newborn child health, the signature aid project of the previous Harper government.

The Conservatives also banned funding for abortion-related services, but the Trudeau government lifted that ban while deciding to carry forward with the aid initiative.

Bibeau said funding for abortion-related programs will become a pillar of the government’s international aid agenda and suggested a multi-year funding commitment will be announced soon.

The Liberals have not committed to raising Canada’s overall aid budget, which stands at less than 0.3 per cent of gross national income. That’s significantly less than the 0.7 per cent target the United Nations has set.

Bibeau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have said it is unlikely Canada can come up with a plan to meet that target, because it would involve a massive infusion of as much as $10 billion.

Ravon said organizations such as Oxfam want to see an overall increase in Canada’s aid budget.

“There is such a shortfall in funding,” she said in an interview. “We’re seeing that Canada’s aid budget is actually at an almost all-time low.

“One-off announcements are important. But we’d really like to see a major increase in the federal budget for development assistance.”

The Liberals are expected to release their latest budget in the coming weeks. Bibeau has overseen the completion of a major review of development strategy, but has not released it. A summary on her department’s website says it held 300 consultations in 65 countries, involving 15,000 people.

Two of the main messages it received were to “apply a feminist lens” to development and raise overall aid spending to 0.7 per cent of gross national income.

Shaughn McArthur, CARE Canada’s advocacy and government relations adviser, said agencies such as his applaud the government’s focus on women and girls in the development review.

“This government has come out very strongly in saying we want to support women and girls,” said McArthur. “And obviously there needs to be a dollar figure associated to that.”

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