UK accused of ‘abandoning’ women with health programme aid cut


The UK government is accused by a leading sexual and reproductive health charity of abandoning women and girls it promised to help by cutting aid to a programme which aims to reduce maternal deaths and prevent unsafe abortions in poor countries.

Dr. Alvaro Bermejo, director general of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), said threat to the women’s integrated sexual health (Wish) programme could mean 7.5m additional unintended pregnancies, 2.7m unsafe abortions and 22,000 maternal deaths over the next year.

“The impact will be brutal,” Bermejo said. “We’re already having to close in half the countries where we are operating and keep the remaining ones operating at 30% of what they were. We will have to close our Mozambique project with three months’ notice and our Zambia project. We’re losing staff now.”

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said it had not yet made any decisions about where the cuts would be made.

However, Bermejo and Simon Cooke, chief executive officer of MSI Reproductive Choices, who implement the FCDO’s reproductive health programme, said they had been told by government officials to “stretch” existing funding beyond June 2021, which meant closing programmes now.

“Women going to get their IUD [intrauterine contraceptive device]or implant inserted will find the clinic is not there,” said Bermejo. “You don’t rebuild that trust, ever.”

“The expected cuts could be the same order of magnitude as when President Trump introduced the ‘global gag rule’,” he said. “We lost US$100m. This time we stand to lose £72m.”

MPs said cuts to reproductive health programmes are “out of Trump’s playbook” and would lead to deaths of women in the world’s poorest countries. The former US president’s 2017 “global gag” blocked US aid funding to groups providing information on abortion.

“What is unbelievable is a flagship programme designed by a Conservative government for sexual and reproductive health is going to be destroyed,” said Bermejo.

IPPF’s Mozambique Wish programme reached half a million women in the last three months, a quarter of them under 25, and increased the take-up of long-term contraceptives, as well as ensuring rural health facilities were stocked with drugs.

Arune Estavela, the project’s director, said the country’s 102 government-run health facilities providing sexual and reproductive services will remain open, but the Wish programme’s closure will mean the quality of the service is reduced. Estavela said women will die as a result.

“We will have more HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies,” said Estavela. “Many teenagers will seek unsafe abortions, and we can expect more complications and maternal deaths. The health facilities are a focal point for cases of gender-based violence, with HIV and pregnancy prophylaxis and that will no longer happen.”

The UK is one of the world’s leading donors to family planning. A review by the then Department for International Development, covering April to December 2019, ranked Wish as “excellent” value for money.

A UK government spokesperson described the aid cuts as “tough but necessary”. They did not comment on the cuts facing reproductive health services but added: “We are still working through what this means for individual programmes and decisions have not yet been made.” (Source: The Guardian)