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Trudeau government unveils reproductive health projects

Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau, shown announcing Canada's feminst foreign-aid policy in this June 9 file photo, said she witnessed the benefits of family planning programs when she visited northern Ghana last week.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Less than three years after legalizing abortion, Mozambique is getting a new aid package from the Canadian government: More than $18-million to support abortion and family-planning services.

The project, announced on Tuesday, is the first specific example of how the Trudeau government is venturing into foreign-aid policies not permitted under the previous Conservative government – or the Trump administration in Washington.

While the United States is drastically cutting its budget for reproductive health and family planning in the developing world, the Trudeau government is pushing in the opposite direction by launching $241.5-million in spending on those same programs. It is part of a strategy the government announced in March. International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau unveiled the first projects on Tuesday at a family planning summit in London, with 65 per cent of the Canadian money going to Africa.

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Read more: Trump's aid cuts risk pushing African women 'into the Dark Ages,' spelling trouble for rising world population

Under the restrictions imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump this year, all U.S. funding is being halted for any international program that even mentions abortion as an option. This will eliminate an estimated $600-million (U.S.) annually from family-planning programs worldwide. It could force a number of clinics and health programs to close, activists say.

The summit in London is part of an international effort to replace the U.S. money. Announcements are expected for about $2.5-billion in family-planning commitments over the next four years from 37 governments, 16 private companies and 11 organizations.

Abortion is illegal in most African countries and even family planning is often taboo.

But under the new strategy, Canada will become a major donor for contraception programs, while supporting women's groups that advocate for the decriminalization of abortion."We chose an area that's not easy," Ms. Bibeau told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Monday.

"It's still a taboo in many regions, so some donors choose to invest in other areas. But even if it's difficult, we have to do it. Canadians are well-placed to champion this issue – we are welcomed everywhere."

The contraception and abortion projects are part of the government's new aid policy it describes as feminist. Some 95 per cent of Canada's bilateral aid would be aimed directly or indirectly at benefiting women and gender equality, making Canada the world leader in this field and the first donor country to label its policy explicitly as a feminist one.

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Mozambique, until recently, had the same prohibition on abortion as most other African countries. The procedure was banned, except when the mother's life was endangered, under laws dating back to the 19th century, when the country was governed by Catholic Portuguese rulers.

As a result, many women went to clandestine abortion providers. Unsafe abortions were responsible for 11 per cent of all maternal deaths, studies found.

But late in 2014, after years of lobbying by women's groups and health advocates, the government loosened the restrictions and allowed legal abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.

Under the project Ms. Bibeau announced on Tuesday, the federal government will give $18.5-million over seven years to a health group, Pathfinder International, to strengthen the delivery of family planning and abortion services in Mozambique, with a special focus on adolescent girls, and to reduce the social and cultural barriers to reproductive health rights.

It is among a total of 19 projects in the $241.5-million funding announcement. Other projects will support sexual and reproductive rights programs and other health services for women in a wide range of countries, from the war zones of Syria and Iraq to the refugee camps of Jordan and the most impoverished regions of South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, Afghanistan and other countries.

Canada will provide $650-million for such programs over three years under the strategy announced in March.

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Under the Conservative government, a multibillion-dollar program was created for maternal health in the developing world, but no funding was permitted for abortion services, and less than 2 per cent of the money was allocated for family planning.

Ms. Bibeau said she witnessed the benefits of family planning programs when she visited northern Ghana last week. Women told her contraception programs helped reduce conflict. "It brought peace within their families," she said. "The women were happy to have family planning."

In many cases, contraception can save the health of women who are under pressure to have large families. And it can allow faster development in countries that have been burdened by high fertility rates and dramatic population growth.

New studies estimate that 214 million women worldwide have no access to modern contraception, despite their desire for it. And while the number of women with access to contraception has increased in recent years, the Trump cuts have threatened the goal.

"There is a funding crisis for family planning," Natalia Kanem, acting executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said in the text of her opening speech to the London summit.

She said the UNFPA contraception supplies program has a $700-million funding gap over the next four years. "This may seem like a lot, but the cost of inaction is much higher: millions of unintended pregnancies, millions of unsafe abortions, and more than a million and a half deaths of mothers and newborns."

Video: New foreign aid policy focuses on women (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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