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Family-planning NGOs could see loss of USAID funding as Trump inks ‘Gag Rule’

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order barring US federal funding for foreign NGOs that support abortion. Local family planning NGOs are bracing for cuts. Afp
US President Donald Trump signs an executive order barring US federal funding for foreign NGOs that support abortion. Local family planning NGOs are bracing for cuts. Afp

Family-planning NGOs could see loss of USAID funding as Trump inks ‘Gag Rule’

Organizations working in Cambodia that provide or promote abortion as a form of family planning are bracing for a cut-off in US government funding thanks to an executive order signed by new US President Donald Trump on Monday.

On his fourth day in office, Trump issued the memorandum reinstituting the so-called “Mexico City Policy”, first enacted under Republican president Ronald Reagan in 1984. Also known as “the Global Gag Rule”, the policy requires NGOs to certify that they will not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning” if they wish to qualify for US government assistance, such as through USAID.

Since it was first enacted, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have revoked and reinstated the policy, respectively.

The US Embassy was yesterday unable to provide details as to which organisations receiving USAID funds may be affected, however, several NGOs operating in Cambodia said they were preparing for the impacts of the order.

Dr Var Chivorn, executive director of the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), which provides abortion services, yesterday said that while the detailed effects are yet unclear, “it means some resources are reduced. It’s hard for us to manage to provide these services to the people.”

While Chivorn does not consider the abortion services RHAC provides as a form of family planning, the new US policy would nonetheless impact RHAC for simply providing information about those services.

RHAC receives US government funding indirectly through International Planned Parenthood of Cambodia, Chivorn said, adding that while funding is secure for this year, he expects it will be cut in 2018.

“In our past experience, when this Global Gag Rule was enacted, it’s always affected our program,” he continued.

The Mexico City Policy was last active under the administration of George W Bush, and was subsequently revoked under that of Barack Obama.

Under the new US policy, even simply offering information that might encourage an expectant mother to seek abortion would prohibit funding.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Staffers at Marie Stopes, which offers abortion services in Cambodia, counsel clients in 2014. Photo supplied

“Even now, women don’t know that in our country abortion is legal, [and so] they go to traditional or unqualified providers,” Chivorn said. “It might cost them their lives; it might cause them disabilities,” he said, adding that some 30 percent of maternal deaths are caused by unqualified abortions.

The new order could also have an impact on programs not directly related to abortions.

In addition to abortions, RHAC provides health care, health education and sex education, among other services – many of which, Chivorn said, will likely be constrained by factors like reduced geographical coverage due to the new funding restrictions.

Dr Heng Kheng, director of the sexual reproductive health department at Population Services Khmer (PSK), said that while none of his organisation’s programs directly related to abortion are funded by USAID, the organisation does receive USAID money. While PSK offers counselling on abortion, it also works in a broad range of fields including HIV prevention, malaria control and infant and maternal mortality reduction.

Kheng was unsure yesterday just what the effects of the change in policy would be, and said he “is waiting to hear from USAID as to what are the guidelines or advice”.

Meanwhile, Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development Cambodia (GADC), a women’s rights NGO, said the Trump administration’s policy would likely affect an $80,000 USAID-funded project for women’s leadership that runs through July 2018.

“We are working to promote women in leadership, and that as citizens they must be involved in the development of the community,” she said, noting that some of the topics included “women’s health materials for talking about abortion”.

“It’s related to the project because it benefits [women’s leadership]; it’s not direct, but it will be affected by this change in policy,” she continued. “Women’s issues will not be addressed.”

Marie Stopes Cambodia, which offers abortion services internationally and locally, referred questions to their global organisation’s statement, which decried that “women in developing countries will pay the price” for the policy.

The Ministry of Health could not be reached for comment, nor could several UN agencies the Post attempted to contact.

US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman, meanwhile, said the embassy needed to “wait for additional guidance from Washington on implementation”.

This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the way RHAC views its services and how they may be impacted.

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