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Sexual and reproductive health at risk as UK cuts its pledge to the UNFPA by 85%

We plan to publish in the future from time to time blog posts about current topics. Today is the first of this posts. The topic is sexual and productive health and the consequences of recent UK cuts to UNFPA. 

Last week, human rights activists and children and women across the world received shattering news when the UK announced that they would reduce funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2021 by 85% - i.e. from £154m to £23m. The impact of this decision will have severe consequences for so many women and girls all over, who now will not have access to vital supplies of contraception as well as maternal healthcare. As explained by the agency itself “with the now-withdrawn 130 million GBP, the UNFPA Supplies Partnership would have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions.”1 These news are rather devastating for this UN agency that has been working for over 50 years to promote gender equality through sexual and reproductive health because the UK is its largest donor.

The UNFPA was established in 1969, after the UN General Assembly declared that “the majority of parents desire to have the knowledge and the means a plan their families; that the opportunities to decide the number and spacing of children is a basic human right.”2 The UNFPA was then tasked with the duty to enforce this human right by facilitating access to a wide range of sexual and reproductive health services. These included voluntary family planning, maternal healthcare and a comprehensive reform of sexual education. Since its creation, the UNFPA has contributed to halving the number and rate of women dying from pregnancy or childbirth complications. However, there is still a lot of work to do. “Sexual and reproductive health problems are currently the leading cause of death and disability for women in the developing world. Young people bear the highest risks of HIV infection and unintended pregnancy. Many millions of girls face the prospect of child marriage and other harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM).”3

With such terrible figures, we would have expected the UK to match their previous pledges, especially since they recently released an Integrated Review (March 2021) where they committed to “promote gender equality, working with women’s rights organisations to tackle the discrimination, violence and inequality that hold women back.”4 It seems rather unlikely that the UK will be able to honour this commitment by 2025 given that sexual and reproductive health rights are at the core of gender equality. Nonetheless, this announcement hardly comes as a surprise given that the UK has reduced their aid budget from 0.7% of the gross national income to 0.5%. As a result, cuts have been experienced across all areas of international development, including a 54% aid cut for Yemen, 93% for the Sahel region and 95% cut to polio eradication efforts.5

A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) said that these reductions in aid spending were necessary in the wake of the pandemic.6 However, Covid-19 has not only had a negative impact in the UK. This pandemic has made the world’s most vulnerable people even more vulnerable and it has become obvious that societies both in the North and South need to appropriately protect and enhance health systems. This will be impossible to do if those countries that aspire to be global leaders do not step up and provide essential financial resources. So, it is important now more than ever that the UK honours previous agreements so that it can fulfil its duty to support developing countries.

(Júlia Peña)

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