Speech minister Ploumen on She Decides

Speech by minister for Foreign Trade and Developent Cooperation Liliane Ploumen on She Decides and equal rights for girls and women, at George Washington University (24 April 2017).

Students, faculty,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me here today. And for putting up with the frequent hassle that comes with the World Bank and IMF meetings held just around the corner. This year’s meeting focused on ending inequality – great news that the World Bank and the IMF take this on.

Could we start with a show of hands? And this isn’t just for the students, but everyone: how many of you were able to attend college thanks to a scholarship or some form of financial aid?

I was raised with the idea that schooling provides the best chance to get a fair start in life. My parents’ education ended after primary school. My father was a milkman. We didn’t have a lot of money, and my parents had no network of well-connected people to help their children get ahead. The only way up was through education.

My parents always encouraged my sister, my brother and me to study hard and get good grades, so that we could enrol in university. In the end, all three of us did. That’s how the daughter of a milkman could become a government minister.

Today I’d like to talk about getting a fair chance at life, and how a lot of young girls around the world miss out on the opportunities you and I had. Many girls never get the chance to discover what their dreams are and how to follow those, because they drop out of school early. And when that happens, it’s not just the girls who lose out; it’s all of society.

Consider the story of Nabirye, a young Ugandan woman. Her mother had eight children, and Nabirye was number six. Her parents couldn’t afford school fees for all of their children, so Nabirye dropped out of primary school. She was married off in her teens, and now, at 20, she already has three children of her own.

It was Nabirye’s dream to become a teacher. Had she grown up in a smaller family, she would have been able to finish school. Would you say Nabirye had a fair chance to discover and fulfil her potential? I wouldn’t. Nabirye herself thinks it’s important to educate young people about the benefits of having smaller families and how to plan their pregnancies accordingly.

Now compare Nabirye’s story with that of a young girl, Akhi, from Bangladesh. Akhi’s parents couldn’t provide for her and she was married off at the age of eleven. She could well have dropped out of school – her seventeen-year old sister-in-law already had two children. Thankfully, a local organization called IMAGE was able to coach Akhi, her young husband and her in-laws. Together, they decided that Akhi would not get pregnant before she could finish secondary school.

Let me be clear: both these girls’ stories upset me. No underage girls should be married off, yet many thousands are. And in my perfect world, only Akhi and nobody else would make decisions with regards to Akhi’s body – not her husband, not her in-laws, no organisation and no one else. But that perfect world is still far off. It is still far off in the Netherlands, where women still suffer from sexual violence and domestic violence. And it is still far off here, in the United States, as well – take the sexual intimidation rampant at FOX News.  

From Akhi and Nabirye to accomplished anchorwomen, they have one thing in common: others stand in the way of them exercising their full autonomy. Millions of girls and women are not the true masters of their own bodies.

But however serious, the situation is not hopeless. The stories of Nabirye and Aki show that a little help can make a big difference. Akhi will graduate from secondary school. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for teenage girls – and that is a risk Akhi steered away from. Akhi may also be better off financially, and her family too.

Every year of school increases the future earnings of girls by ten to twenty per cent. So six years of school – well, you do the math. Everyone benefits  when the world finally stops denying girls and women one of the most fundamental rights of all: to decide for themselves if and when they want to have children, and how many they want to have.

And we’re making progress. In just four years, the number of people using modern family planning has increased by thirty million. So we’re on the right track, even if there is still a long way to go: over 200 million women would like to use birth control but have no access to it.

Yet, we now face a big step backwards for equal rights, and this greatly concerns me.

For many years, the United States government showed leadership by supporting organisations that help girls like Nabirye and Akhi. This valuable work is now at risk because of the decision by the current administration to reinstate the Mexico City Policy, also known as the ‘global gag rule’.

It’s a policy that freezes US funding to organisations working overseas that offer access to safe abortion services or information on safe abortion – usually as part of a comprehensive family planning programme.

Most of these organisations provide a wide range of services, from sex education to access to family planning and medicine, maternal healthcare during and after pregnancy, prevention of sexually transmitted infections, and so on.

A funding freeze would put those in jeopardy as well. Last year, the US budget for international family planning was 600 million dollars. No access to such family planning services means more unsafe sex, more infections and more unwanted pregnancies.

And no access to safe abortion, research from Stanford University suggests, will simply mean more unsafe abortions – a practice that already kills almost 50 thousand girls and women a year.

The exact details of the new policy are still unclear. But we’re talking about big numbers with big consequences for real people.  

Vast numbers of girls and women will be denied a fair chance in life. They will never have access to the information and the means to plan their pregnancies. They will drop out of school. They will no longer be in charge of their own bodies, or their own lives. Women and girls will again be denied the fundamental right to decide for themselves, about themselves.

And that is why, when I heard of the return of the Mexico City Policy, I launched an initiative named ‘She Decides’ to stand up for the rights of women and girls, and to help make up for the funding shortfall. She Decides is a global movement: anyone can contribute to help promote the right of women and girls to decide whether, when and with whom to have children.

The response has been overwhelming. Individuals, organisations and governments from over 50 countries have got behind She Decides. In six weeks we managed to raise almost 200 million dollars. We received support from across the world, including many Americans. I received postcards from all over the States.

A lady dropped by at the Dutch embassy, here in Washington, to leave an envelope with a note for me inside, along with a five-dollar bill to go towards to the cause.

She Decides is about providing each and every woman and girl with the right to decide about her own body, about her own life. This right is about having easy access to information and health services, about access to family planning methods if she wants and also access to safe abortion if she needs it.

The governments of a wide range of countries agree: from Afghanistan to Belgium, from Ethiopia to Finland, from Chad to Uruguay. They have signed up to She Decides.

So I feel encouraged by the response. But I’m still concerned, because the US is the world’s largest donor when it comes to international family planning. If it suddenly renounces that leadership role, girls and women all over the world will pay the price. I hope we can find a way to prevent that.

I’m pro-choice myself. I fully support the right of every woman to decide what she does with her own body. My government supports that right. We need cool heads, not cold dogma. A warm heart, not heated ideological debate. We need wise leadership which is sensitive to the consequences of policy.

Because, for the sake of equal rights for girls and women, the world needs more family planning, not less. For the sake of eradicating poverty, the world needs more family planning, not less. For the sake of sustainable development, the world needs more family planning, not less.

If all women who want birth control had access to it, unwanted pregnancies would fall by 70 per cent, and unsafe abortions by 74 per cent. And to those with an eye for the bottom line, I would say: modern family planning is a smart investment. Every dollar spent will yield 120 dollars in benefits to society. I would call that a sound business case.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In rich and poor countries alike, girls and women are still denied the same rights as boys and men. That is a mistake, and one that everyone is paying a price for. So I fully agree with the US Administration’s aim for women’s economic empowerment.

Just imagine: if women were to participate in the economy on an equal footing with men, countries would see economic growth of over 25 per cent in the next ten years. That’s the equivalent of adding another US and another China to the global economy!

Norms and values, laws, codes and habits are preventing many women from being who they can be, from being the masters of their own fate and their own bodies. These written and unwritten rules have to change. And here is where I ask you to do your part: stand up and make your voice heard, in your future professions, and right now.

Please join me in the fight for equal rights. You can be part of the She Decides movement in whichever way you want, or you can support any organisation that advocates equal rights for girls and women.  It’s the right thing to do.

Thank you.

Ministry responsible