Graca Machel

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The numbers can overwhelm: Every minute of every day somewhere in the world, a woman dies giving birth. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in four women aged 20 to 29 is infected with HIV-AIDS. Of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty worldwide, 70 percent are women. One in four young girls in developing countries suffers from iodine deficiency. Nearly a half billion women are stunted from malnutrition. The statistics go on and on.

Mindful not only of the numbers but also of the real women involved, Graca Machel issued a call to arms during a four-day Global Health Council conference here last week, urging members to respond to the crisis in women’s health as if the lives of their own child, their own sister, their own mother were at stake.

“We have this sense of urgency in doing things,” said Machel, conference co-chair, chancellor of the University of Cape Town and wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela. More than 1,500 representatives of nongovernmental organizations worldwide attended the conference.

“I urge you to use this meeting to initiate change or to strengthen the efforts that are already being made,” she said. “We must each say, ‘this is my responsibility–my actions can make a difference.’ We must question whether we have given sufficient priority to women’s health or whether we have inadvertently undermined it, thus undermining our ability to meet global health targets for all.”

Machel called for a series of “simple actions” such as providing all women with health information and birth control, providing better health services to young girls, placing greater emphasis on reducing maternal mortality and, most importantly, educating all children, especially girls, who are often denied a place in schools.

Women are burdened not only by disease but also by a lack of human rights that affects their health. In addition, wars, honor killings, domestic violence and female genital mutilation plague women in many parts of the world.

In Africa, 55 Percent of HIV-Positive Adults Are Women

The conference touched on numerous health and social issues affecting women, but the devastating impact of HIV-AIDS dominated the session.

Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, noted that half of those newly infected with HIV worldwide are women. In Africa, 55 percent of HIV-positive adults are women. AIDS has created 13 million orphans in Africa, a number equal to all the children living in Texas and California combined.

“We must make sure that girls, who run a particular risk of infection, have the skills, the services and the self-confidence to protect themselves,” Annan told the conference. “Across all levels of society, we need to see a deep social revolution that transforms relations between women and men, so that women will be able to take greater control of their lives, financially as well as physically.”

HIV-AIDS, which marks its 20th year in the United States this week, has had a catastrophic impact on developing nations in Africa and Asia and now is turning toward Eastern Europe. Its unchecked march around the world moved Annan to call for a Global AIDS and Health Fund. The $10 billion fund would help poor nations fight HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. The United States has pledged $200 million to become the first donor nation.

Annan said the status of women’s health was critical not only to communities but also to countries. “When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: Families are healthier, they are better fed, their income, savings and reinvestment go up. Conversely, when women suffer ill health, the whole of society pays a higher price,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson sought to reassure the conference participants of President Bush’s commitment to women’s health issues in general and to the fight against AIDS in particular. Thompson and Secretary of State Colin Powell have been asked by Bush to lead a task force on AIDS.

Tommy Thompson Says Women’s Health a Top Priority for Bush

“We’re very mindful of the global nature of the crisis and its profound impact on human health throughout the world. Of the 36 million people in this world that are infected with HIV, 25 million are on the continent of Africa. It’s our responsibility, as world citizens, to do everything we possibly can to prevent the spread of that,” Thompson said.

Thompson noted his wife is a breast cancer survivor “who has given me a first- hand perspective on the importance of quality medical care for women in need.” He said women’s health “is one of the very highest priorities” for his agency and the Bush administration.

He announced a new Health and Human Services Web site ( that will provide information and news about global health issues. The site, which will be operational in a few weeks, will provide the latest medical literature, links to other sites and health resources, he said.

But, Thompson made no mention of the administration’s so-called “global gag rule.” The presidential order, Bush’s first act as president in January, bars federal funding to international family planning groups that discuss abortion as an option or lobby on behalf of abortion rights.

Opposition to the executive order was voiced by several conference participants who met with members of Congress to lobby on global health issues.

Women’s Health Advocates Critical of ‘Abstinence-Only’ Policies

Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, also voiced concern during a conference workshop that the anti-choice positions of the Bush administration will roll back modest gains made in the international reproductive rights front.

Two critical U.N. summits this year, one on AIDS and the other on children, will likely provide the administration and its conservative allies a forum to push an “abstinence-only” policy when it comes to providing adolescents with information and resources about reproductive issues. “The prospects are not good,” she said.

With all the dire news, Musimbi Kanyoro, general secretary of the Geneva-based World YWCA, called on participants to retain hope.

“In Africa, we know misery. We know pain and we know powerlessness. But hope is our story,” she said.

She pointed to the story of the Mozambican woman who, pregnant and fleeing from the March 2000 floods, scaled a tree, gave birth on the tree and then clung to her baby and a rope, to be pulled to safety by a helicopter.

“Is this not a spirituality of hope? We in Africa are a stubborn people of hope. If you do not recognize the hope in African people, you will be traumatized to inertia by the statistics of death. You will be tempted to give up on us. Do not flirt with hopelessness,” she said.

Nancy Mathis is a free-lance writer in Washington who has covered the White House and Congress.

For more information, visit:

Global Health Council:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

Global health portal (operational in several weeks):

WEnews Brief

Health Advocates Sue Bush Over Global Gag Rule

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s health advocates are suing the administration in federal court here, claiming its controversial stance on assistance to foreign health care providers violates the free speech clause of the Constitution.

Representatives for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy filed suit Wednesday against President George Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, saying that a so-called global gag rule violates the First Amendment right to free speech by U.S. and other human rights advocates working in family planning.

The complaint states: “This censorship of private political speech domestically and overseas directly impedes plaintiffs’ ability to further their organization mission to reform reproductive health laws worldwide, including abortion laws, in accordance with international human rights principles.”

The global gag rule, reinstated on Bush’s first working day in office on Jan. 22, bars foreign organizations that receive U.S. family planning funds from speaking publicly about abortion as a medical option, organizing an education campaign or lobbying for reform in abortion law. Foreign family planning organizations even would be barred from testifying in front of the U.S. Congress.

Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y. said the policy is more dangerous than any gag rule debated on the House floor in recent history.

“In America this policy would be unconstitutional.” She added that imposing it around the world is “unconscionable.”

Although the gag rule censors speech abroad, it also constricts free speech within the borders of the U.S., the advocates claimed. For example, any American who works abroad for foreign organizations that receive U.S. family planning funds may not meet with their own congressional representative or otherwise express public support for decriminalization of abortion relating to their specific experience overseas.

Janet Benshoof, president of the center, said First Amendment rights to free speech are “without borders.”

President Bush took away my right to speak freely with colleagues, Benshoof said, because we support a position with which he disagrees: that access to safe and legal abortion is a human right of women worldwide, Benshoof said.

The global gag rule, she added, prevents the center’s lawyers from communicating effectively with citizens and activists in other countries even where abortion is legal. As a result of the global gag rule, said Benshoof, many foreign organizations can no longer work in partnership with the center’s organizations, they cannot attend events at the United Nations at which the center is speaking, and they cannot meet with the center’s staff to provide information about the situation in their own country.

Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, said that it would be virtually impossible to conduct human rights work abroad without the existence of information gathered from these nongovernmental organizations involved in family planning overseas.

Of 430 organizations worldwide that receive U.S. family planning assistance, fewer than 10 have refused to comply with the gag rule, and the rest are not financially secure or brave enough to reject U.S. funding, said Benshoof, citing a recent USAID report. –Jessica McRorie

Read a recent Women’s Enews commentary on the global gag rule, “Media Ignores Gag Rules’ Harm to Free Speech”: