For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a passionate advocate for women’s reproductive rights. For four years, I worked on the domestic landscape, raising resources for policies to support American women’s access to the services they need and deserve. When I made the switch to the international scene a year ago, I was struck by how segregated the two communities are, and how individuals and institutions tend to offer support for either international organizations, or domestic ones; rarely both.
Yet, while a woman in Malawi deals with a different political reality from a woman in Mississippi, the challenges to fulfilling her reproductive rights are surprisingly similar. She faces a restrictive political environment that inhibits progressive policy, which in turn impairs services at the clinic level. Logistical challenges—transportation to a medical provider, prohibitive user fees—can prevent her from getting the care she needs. This is as true in Latin America as it is in poor communities here in the United States.
If the challenges extend beyond borders, shouldn’t the movement for reproductive health and rights be a global one? And shouldn’t philanthropic dollars and passion follow suit?
Granted, the international space can be a more complicated one to navigate, and for those of us not schooled in international development, it can be hard to determine where we can make an impact. While the U.S. political reality can be discouraging if you care about reproductive rights, we often know where to apply pressure and what kind of political capital we need to wield. The playing field, while sometimes treacherous, is nonetheless one we know and understand.
Internationally, it’s a different story. The international funding landscape is deeply complex , with multi-laterals, bi-laterals, USAID, the World Bank, and the United Nations just a few of the players with influence and resources in the mix.
That said, one point of entry to becoming a global advocate is exceedingly clear: holding the U.S. government accountable as a global leader for reproductive rights. The United States remains one of the world’s biggest donors to international family planning and reproductive health programs. But along with our money, we also send our policies and ideology overseas.
So, when the political pendulum swings unfavorably here, women around the world brace themselves. U.S. elections matter—the impacts are felt from New York to Nairobi, and from Texas to Guatemala. Policies like the Global Gag Rule can cause disruptions that impact a woman’s daily quality of life, and her long-term prospects for a bright and empowered future.
The more we divide the fight for reproductive rights into the domestic and international landscapes, the more we inadvertently downplay the impact U.S. politics has on women in far reaches of the globe. The U.S. is a global leader, and our domestic political battles shape both the messages and policies we export. U.S foreign assistance can be transformative, but if it is entwined with an ideology that limits women’s reproductive freedom, it might actually make it harder for the women we are ostensibly helping to receive the care they need. Clinics can’t thrive without the underlying policies and attitudes that enable service providers to open their doors in the first place.
Over the past year, as we’ve worked to increase the number of individuals and institutions that invest in reproductive rights, I’ve heard the phrase,” I only do domestic work,” time and again. Even savvy philanthropists tend to slice reproductive rights up, seeing only domestic or international work as a priority. But women’s challenges are universal.
We must ensure that our passion, our resources and our calls to action don’t stop at our borders. We must demand that U.S. accountability and leadership on these issues extends to U.S. policies overseas. Women in this country and around the world deserve a U.S. government that helps—not hinders—them in fulfilling their reproductive rights.