UNITED NATIONS - When the United States tried to water down a longstanding policy on reproductive health and family planning at the World Bank last month, there was a storm of protests from population experts and activist groups worldwide.The protests came from several non-governmental organizations, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Bretton Woods Project, CARE International UK, Global Population Education, Action Aid and the Center for Health and Gender Equity.
All of them complained that a proposed draft strategy on population, backed by the United States, did not acknowledge women's sexual health and reproductive rights.
Although the move was thwarted, "this immediate victory requires eternal vigilance against actions by the neo-cons now in powerful positions -- all political appointees of World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz," says Werner Fornos, president of Global Population Education.
He said "a near-fatal anti-population policy appears to have been stopped at the World Bank, thanks in large part to European executive directors who insisted on staying with a 10-year policy of including population and family planning programs in country specific plans."
"For the Bank to abandon reproductive rights and turn the clock back on major environmental initiatives would be a reprehensible retreat from reality," Fornos told IPS.
He said the embattled Wolfowitz, who has been accused of trying to implement the right-wing neo-conservative policies of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, has to be watched carefully -- if he succeeds in surviving the current turmoil in the Bank.
As Wolfowitz's leadership hangs on a thread due primarily to charges of conflict of interest in his romantic relationship with a staffer, one of his appointees, Juan Jose Daboub, a managing director at the World Bank, was also accused of trying to eliminate references to reproductive health and family planning from a Bank strategy document.
After strong protests by several European members, specifically Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Norway, the Bank's executive board decided to sustain its policy on population and women's reproductive rights in its strategy document.
"This is a victory for women throughout the world," said Jodi Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE).
She said that a Wolfowitz appointee "obviously working in line with the ultra-conservative forces in the United States and abroad tried to impose his own fundamentalist religious agenda on women worldwide."
As a result of concerted action by civil society, and leadership by both executive directors of the Bank and committed staff inside the Bank, this effort failed, Jacobson said.
According to the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, the World Bank representatives from France, Germany, Italy, and Norway "fought to keep out language proposed by U.S. representative Whitney Debevoise during discussions on the Bank's strategy for Health, Nutrition and Population Results."
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The Institute said that talks over the strategy document grew heated when the United States objected to language on reproductive health services, including abortions.
The United States moved to change the phrase "reproductive health services" to "age appropriate access to sexual and reproductive health care", but the Europeans charged that the United States phrasing would deny access to young women, the Institute said.
And according to the Institute, this was the second time in the last few weeks that the World Bank family planning policy has come under scrutiny.
In early April, a leaked e-mail accused Jose Daboub, a national of El Salvador and a senior bank official, of deleting all references to family planning in a document on country assistance to Madagascar.
Wolfowitz has denied that the Bank had contemplated any changes in its policy on reproductive health.
Over the last 30 years, the Bank says it has provided over three billion dollars in assistance for population and reproductive health worldwide.
In a statement released last week, Serra Sippel, deputy director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, said that lack of access to basic sexual and reproductive health services is "a major reason that we have seen little progress in reducing maternal deaths worldwide."
"These problems also have exacerbated women's vulnerability to HIV infections," Sippel said.
Women now represent two-thirds of those infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. "It is critical that a multilateral organization such as the World Bank promote public health and human rights, not ideology," she said.
Sippel said the challenge now is to monitor application of Bank agreements at the country and regional level and ensure that efforts to address sexual and reproductive morbidity and mortality and to promote women's fundamental human rights are at the core of each country strategy.
"This is the next phase of work toward which we all must turn," Sippel added.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service