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UN says Canadian funding for reproductive health agency critical after U.S. cuts

Villagers gather in an impromptu evacuation centre on Bali after a volcano erupted in late November. Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, says Canadian funding for that agency allowed the agency to help women fleeing the eruption.

JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP/Getty Images

The head of the UN reproductive health and rights agency says Canada's financial support has been critical to the agency's work after President Donald Trump cut U.S. funding this year.

Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, says the withdrawal of almost $70-million (U.S.) in American funding will put millions of women's lives at risk in the years to come. Dr. Kanem, who was in Ottawa on Wednesday to launch the agency's annual population report, said the Canadian government's renewal of $15.6-million (Canadian) in funding is "lifesaving" for vulnerable women and girls in some of the poorest regions of the world.

"The loss of the U.S. funding has affected – and it's not an exaggeration to say – hundreds of thousands of women around the world. And cumulatively, over the course of years, it will be in the millions," Dr. Kanem said.

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"We're really grateful for core funding because it keeps the lights on and it has us at the ready so that we're there before a problem arises … during a crisis, and hopefully we're there afterward."

In 2016, prior to the U.S. funding withdrawal, Canada was the fourth-largest donor to the UNFPA (as the agency is also known – its former name was the United Nations Fund for Population Activities), behind Britain, Sweden and the United States.

Dr. Kanem said Canadian funding is critical as the agency works toward ending all unintended pregnancies, gender-based violence – such as female genital mutilation – and deaths in childbirth by 2030. She admitted the world has a long way to go until it reaches that goal: More than 800 women die in childbirth every day, and the leading cause of death for girls and women aged 15 to 19 is childbirth and pregnancy-related complications, according to the UNFPA.

The United States said it would end funding for the UNFPA, which operates in 155 countries, in April. The State Department said it was doing so because the agency "supports, or participates in the management of, a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization." The UNFPA insists it does not fund or perform abortions or forced sterilizations.

The announcement came after Mr. Trump reinstated the so-called global gag rule in January, prohibiting U.S. funding to international organizations that fail to disavow abortion.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in March that Canada will spend $650-million over three years on sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide, including contraception, sex education and legal abortion. In June, the government also unveiled what it called "Canada's first feminist international assistance policy," which stipulates that at least 95 per cent of Canada's international aid focus on equality and empowerment by 2021-22.

Sandeep Prasad, executive director of pro-choice charity Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said Canada's leadership on the file is important at this time.

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"We are witnessing a historic attack on women's reproductive health and rights in the U.S., the once-leading global donor on reproductive health," Mr. Prasad said.

"We need governments like Canada to step up and lead by example. We've been encouraged to see this leadership emerging through the feminist international assistance policy and through helping to fill the funding gap left by the U.S. global gag rule."

Dr. Kanem said Canadian funding helped provide maternity services such as cesarean sections to women displaced by the hurricane season in Cuba this year. She said Canadian taxpayers also recently helped women fleeing an erupting volcano in Indonesia.

"In situations of displacement, the core funding of Canada allows UNFPA to be at the ready, as we were in Indonesia, to provide dignity kits for women and girls who flee their home without sanitary protection, without the wherewithal if you had medication or contraception that you were taking normally," Dr. Kanem said.

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Parliamentary reporter

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, she was the associate producer of CTV’s Question Period and a political writer for CTVNews.ca. Michelle has also worked as a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics, covering foreign affairs, defence and immigration, and as a city desk reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. More

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