Tomorrow, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. On this International Women’s Day, one area of conversation that I hope will re-open for Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Greens, is reinstating funding for the UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities).
As you’ll recall, President George W. Bush de-funded the U.S. commitment to this program in the early days of his Presidency, on the grounds that Chinese programs sponsored by the UN coerced women into having abortions. Though his own State Department sent a delegation to China which concluded that, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth, U.S. funding for this program has been eliminated ever since.
In fall of 2003, I was privileged to be part of an interfaith delegation to China to scope out the situation. I joined Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in an extensive tour to remote areas to meet with U.N. sponsored programs. We divided up into subgroups, and between us we met with over fifteen U.N. sponsored family planning programs in 9 provinces.
My group, which primarily toured rural areas, popped in on tiny villages and walked the streets chatting with women home from the rice paddies or cornfields. (Ever since, I have imagined what it would be like if I opened my door one day to a delegation of Chinese women, come to interview me about my own life history related to birth control and abortion. I kind of doubt that my neighbors would offer the immediate and warm hospitality which we received universally, or welcome the open discussions of the pros and cons of IUDs versus the pill!)
Nowhere did we see evidence of the UN supporting coercion. Indeed, the UN used its funding to leverage family planning clinics NOT to coerce abortions! Swamped by many more requests for assistance than they could provide, they only worked with groups who agreed to extensive and detailed contracts related to subtle and nuanced ways in which abortions might be coerced. Any UN program where this was discovered had its funding suspended immediately.
Every time we met with a clinic staff, we would ask them dozens of questions, probing to learn if there was any validity to the rumors of coerced abortion, as well as asking them about their clientele and services. After we were done talking to them, we would always ask if there was anything they wanted to ask us.
In each setting, with clear desire not to offend but also with clear bewilderment, they asked about the prevalence of teen pregnancy in the United States. Why, they wondered, wasn’t the U.S. carrying out the recommendations of the U.N. Conference on Population in Cairo in 1994? Their clear and shining pride in China’s recent admission into the U.N. shone throughout these meetings. They clearly did not understand how we could dismiss our own responsibilities so lightly.
How did it happen they wondered, that teens were so often getting pregnant in the US? Didn’t they have the access to birth control which the conference in Cairo had agreed was essential? Were they getting good education about the implications of the decisions they made? Didn’t teen pregnancy hurt the young parents’ ability to have a good life, and diminish their ability to be good parents?
The humility I felt grew by the day as I saw these remote Chinese villagers holding up an expectation of international cooperation and accountability. It took a number of days for me to realize that I had learned, despite my professions to the contrary, to dismiss such international agreements as optional or secondary. My humility grew as I listened in on conversations of peasant women discussing the pros and cons of birth control options with far more knowledge and thoughtfulness than I had heard among college educated women in my life. It turned to something akin to shame as I began to recognize how deeply I had internalized American superiority; U.S. Supremacy in the world.
On this international women’s day, I’m going to do two things, in which I invite you to join me: First, I’m going to contact my candidate of choice for U.S. President to restate the importance of UNFPA funding. Second, I’m going to check out materials provided by the planning group for the UU International Women’s Convocation, now posted on the web at www.icuuw.com. Happy International Women’s Day, one and all!
Rev. Meg Riley