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Defy the Odds

Analysis Suzanne Ehlers, Former President and CEO

2017: A year that defied the odds.

It was a year that forced us to ask ourselves: how do we remain resolute in the face of adversity; how do we stay resilient when under assault; and how do we make time to rejoice in victory? The past year has shown us that adversity is often the most fertile soil for exposing injustice—validating the work of those who have been at the forefront and jolting others out of complacency.

For those of us who believe in defending and advancing human rights—including sexual and reproductive health and rights—painful realities like the imposition and expansion of the Global Gag Rule on the world’s most vulnerable communities, the Rohingya genocide, and the persistent inequitable effects of institutionalized racism in the United States highlighted how much work we still have to do.

On this anniversary of the inauguration of President Trump, 2017 also feels like a signpost marking the end of an era for U.S. leadership on global health.

And yet, 2017 was also the year of the Women’s March, during which millions of women around the world mobilized against violations of women’s rights. It was the year of the #MeToo movement, which has generated a national conversation about sexual harassment, gender and consent.

Overseas, there were other signs of hope and progress. European and other country donors pledged more than $400 million in response to harmful U.S. funding cuts and policy actions such as the expanded Global Gag Rule, as well as the defunding of UNFPA, the U.N.’s primary agency working to advance family planning and reproductive health around the world—including in humanitarian crises. Governments in Asia and Africa also pledged $1.5 billion to the FP2020 initiative in order to reach more women and girls with contraceptive services and supplies.

For all of these reasons, PAI remains persistent and optimistic. And there are a few things that have kept our fires burning:

Local Champions Go the Distance

In 2017, The Trump-Pence administration threatened the very existence of U.S. international family planning assistance when it proposed gutting the program’s budget. Sadly, we expect the administration to once again propose historically low funding levels for FY2019. Yet, while budget battles loom large, we know that local leadership and the spirit of partnership will prevail. PAI’s family of partners in 22 countries have been advancing an agenda for sexual and reproductive rights long before the 45th president of the United States, and they will continue their work long after he is gone. With our support, these champions have already mobilized more than $600,000 in government funding for family planning. They stand resolute in the face of adversity, and PAI’s efforts in 2017 were made stronger and more durable because of them.

Unlikely Alliances Yield Unexpected Wins

We know that the future of our movement depends on both growing and strengthening it. That’s why in 2017, PAI forged connections with unlikely allies across the sexual and reproductive health community. For example, PAI’s Faith + Family Planning Fund provided religious organizations in 10 countries with small grants and technical support to drive progress on sexual and reproductive rights. These partnerships led to groundbreaking results, such as the creation of the Amina Network in Kenya: a forum for Muslim women and girls to champion family planning and reproductive health issues.

Quality as the Bedrock of Primary Health Care

Even as the Trump-Pence administration and the majority-Republican Congress took aim—over and over again—at weakening the U.S. Affordable Care Act, the rest of the world moved forward in honoring commitments made to ensure Universal Health Coverage by 2030. PAI’s work in this arena has been, and continues to be, ensuring that quality, equity and access are foundational pillars of Universal Health Coverage through a highly functioning primary health care system. In 2017, PAI joined the civil society-led UHC 2030 movement to advance these principles in the global dialogue, in addition to working with partners in Ghana and Nigeria at national and subnational levels to leverage policies and funding which advance the availability of quality primary health care.

The Here-and-Now of Young People

Young people in almost every country face challenges to their autonomy and sexual and reproductive rights. These include harmful social norms, discrimination and violations of their privacy, which make it difficult for them to get the healthcare they need. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for girls 15-19 years old. Yet, these young people—innovators, health care workers and advocates—are also leading change in their communities. In 2017, PAI’s YOUAccess fund provided flexible funding for young leaders to address urgent sexual and reproductive health challenges in their communities. The fund, and PAI’s expert technical assistance continue to offer the opportunity for innovative project development, knowledge sharing, and evidence-building initiatives to best meet current and future youth contraceptive needs.

If ever there were a silver lining to the disruption and distortion we are all witness to, it is that advocates like PAI are flexing new muscles, old approaches don’t yield results, and one-upmanship only leaves everyone down a few rungs.

So our message from 2017? Defy the odds.

The girls and women of the world are watching us—and standing with us. It is now up to us to show them what our courage and fortitude can achieve.

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