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US Leverages Its NGO Funding To Influence Abortion Related Decisions The World Over

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By Karthik Shankar:

Bizarre. That was the primary word on everyone’s lips when the news came out about Purvi Patel’s sentencing last week. One word that has been brandished less frequently is ‘chilling’. For those of you sitting in Delhi, the case might seem like a weird outlier; one of those, a little too frequent, American news pieces on school shootouts or frivolous lawsuits.

purvi patel

But Purvi Patel’s case is important, not as a local concern in a conservative American state but as a daunting reminder that the United States still has the ability to influence similar decisions around the world.  For decades, the United States through its donor agency USAID (United States Agency for International Development),  has influenced decisions about abortion and contraceptives around the world by withholding funding for NGOs that provide abortion related services.

Abortion has long been one of the most hotly contested issues in American politics. The word itself can make or break careers. As with most hotbed issues, opinions are divided across party lines. Democrats support the right to choose while Republicans who subscribe to stronger ideas of Christian conservatism tend to staunchly oppose it. In fact, one of the primary concerns of Obama’s already controversial state provided health insurance system dubbed Obamacare, was the state mandating private corporates to fund contraception. It goes without saying that abortion is one of those words that are rarely mentioned by the political elite in the United States, much like Lord Voldemort. “I support the right of a woman to choose” or “I choose the right to life” are the closest moderate leaders come to in choosing their sides.

Indiana, the state in which Patel was sentenced under the foeticide law has been setting standards as far as right wing dogma goes. Republican governor Michael Pence has been working on overdrive to satiate his conservative base. A new state law allows private businesses to refuse to serve same sex couples under the guise of ‘religious freedom‘. Essentially, it means Christians can cite religion as a reason to not treat same sex couples on an equal standing with heterosexual couples. This applies for everything from hosting them in restaurants or providing them packing and moving services.

Pence has also been a strong crusader against federal funding of Planned Parenthood, the biggest abortion provider in the United States. He also increased regulations on abortion inducing pills, the same ones that Patel may have ordered online.

All these decisions reverberate in India because anti-abortion is one of those values that the U.S continues to export around the world. Although abortion is legal in India (unless you’re indulging in sex-selection), not all women can access abortion services equally. Someone in a metro city is more likely to have easier access to quality health centres as opposed to someone who might have to rely on unauthorised centres. NGOs do a lot to fill the gap in this regard.

USAID, has been instrumental in funding NGOs around the world. Its beneficiaries are from myriad fields – poverty eradication, women empowerment, disaster relief. However, reproductive rights is one area in which USAID has been playing an ideological game for decades. It was instrumental in funding the notoriously dodgy state sponsored sterilisation camps that led to the death of fifteen women in Chattisgarh last November.

When it comes to abortion, USAID is notoriously puritanical and unfortunately has the money to back it up to the tune of $22 billion. A global gag order on abortions called the Mexico City Policy restricts funding to NGOs that provide abortion related services, even if it is only counselling. In 2002, it meant sixteen countries no longer received USAID funded contraceptives.  In Kenya it led to the closing of over five clinics of a nationwide family planning clinic.  Like his Democratic predecessors, Obama repealed this policy.

However, even he has not been able to circumvent the extremely odious Helm’s Provision to the Foreign Assistance Act. The provision prohibits US foreign assistance from paying for the “performance of abortion as a method of family planning” or to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions”. The broad phrasing of these provisions mean that it can be used to deny pregnant rape survivors abortions as has been the case in Congo’s armed conflict. It has been used to deny women in rural areas abortion care in Nepal where a bilateral agreement between the government and USAID led to the setting up of the Nepal Family Health Program (NFPH).

All these are stark reminders of how decisions in the United States have ramifications far beyond our borders. Let’s all hope Mike Pence does not decide to run for President in the near future. Then foeticide laws might be used to prosecute rather than protect pregnant women around the world.

You must be to comment.
  1. Akshat

    Even if it is not completely relevant to this article, I would like to point out that a statement like
    “Although abortion is legal in India …” is highly misleading, if not completely false, because of
    its utter incompleteness.
    A woman in India cannot request a medical practitioner to perform an abortion on the ground that she does not want a child at that time
    if the pregnancy was not a result of a failed sterlization. (See Ref 1)
    I think spreading misinformation like this adversely affects the good work of advocates of women’s rights
    because there still much work to be done.


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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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