Ex-development minister: ‘If men were the ones giving birth, healthcare would be better equipped’

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul [UNCTAD/Flickr]

Hundreds of thousands of women die during or after childbirth, and HIV often affects young women in poorer countries. Germany’s former Development Minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul told EURACTIV Germany that the EU has to do more to empower women.

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul (SPD) was development minister from 1998 to 2009. She is a vice-president of the Friends of the Global Fund Europe.

She spoke to euractiv.de’s Nicole Sagener.

Your time in office as development minister ended back in 2009. Now, Germany is not meeting its commitments to provide funding. How would you advise your successor Gerd Müller?

I don’t know whether public suggestions have a place here. But the most important thing to focus on, in my view, is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their place in the consciousness of all members of the government and the public itself. That also means incorporating the issue of SDG implementation with our dealings with our partner countries.

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The SDGs include targets for gender and maternal rights. Are you already seeing a real change in the European development agenda?

The main objectives of ending discrimination against women, equality, improving access to healthcare and providing resources to combat HIV, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and so on, have to be met urgently.

Furthermore, care at a multilateral and bilateral level also has to be taken that in affected countries, women are able to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. Around 225 million women still lack access to family planning. It is no coincidence that maternal mortality rates are still dramatically high. Around 300,000 women die each year during pregnancy or from complications afters. Priority must be given to providing access to midwives and healthcare facilities, as well as addressing the general shortfall of trained medical personnel.

You said at the World Health Summit in Berlin that if more women were politicians in poorer countries, then the quality of healthcare available to women would be much better. The ten countries with the highest birth rates are all in sub-Saharan Africa, where malnutrition, poor healthcare and high HIV rates are all part and parcel of everyday life for women.

I’d go one step further: if the men of the Global South were the ones giving birth, the health systems would be the best financially equipped systems around. It shows that the big problem still exists.

How can attitudes towards women be changed and what role can self-help play?

We have to empower women in the political sphere. The Global Fund’s Country Coordinating Mechanisms (CCMs) are designed to promote gender issues and make it so that women are well represented and that their issues are being addressed. There are other important initiatives like the Future Beats programme, which uses local radio stations on university campuses to reach young men, in order to hopefully contribute to increasing understanding and preventing violence.

How do you spread ideas and projects like this even further?

Practical, on-site action has to be funded by the German government, the EU and UN agencies. It is particularly worrying that of the new HIV infections among young people in South Africa, 74% were diagnosed in young women. This shows that you have to empower women, but that male behaviour also has to change.

The more political and economic empowerment women have, the more likely it is that they will be able to have conversations about contraception with their partner. Women that are financially dependent on a partner can perhaps only discuss these issues in theory.

I also support the International Partnership for Microbicides initiative. The Vaginal Ring, which is a contraceptive that also provides antiviral protection and can be used without the help of a doctor, is being touted as a comprehensive measure, through the European Medicine Agency. Its further development is a dream of mine.

Does the EU’s current policy provide enough support to bring about the desired changes?

I definitely think that it is important that the European Commission has made a substantial contribution to the replenishment of the Global Fund. The empowerment of women and also healthcare instituions is of course also a task for the EU. That needs money. Kristalina Georgieva is on her way out and will not be responsible for the next budget. We will see if Mr Oettinger continues in the same vein.

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Critics fear that the Commission could integrate a “security agenda” into the development cooperation budget, as well as the SDG and climate treaty funds. This could mean that development money could be used as leverage in third countries to control the flow of refugees.

I find any ideas about the containment of refugees absurd. It’s not going to work and I think it is the wrong decision, politically. Europe, and Germany as well, have to implement policies that manage migration, allowing regulated migration and providing training for those who come here for economic reasons.

The right to asylum has to be separate from this. Anything else, I think, will be a misuse of money earmarked for development policy. Why doesn’t the Commission set up a refugee fund for communities or areas that are willing to take people in? Many communities want to implement their own initiatives.

The SDGs bring with them a vision of social and economic change. That also means slowing climate change and reducing its impact as a major driver of poverty. Moreover, agricultural export policy is unfair competition and must be stopped, like “Made in Europe” for example.

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Do you mean trade agreements between the EU and Africa, like the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs)?

When I was minister, we asked ourselves how to pursue or even terminate agreements with the African, Caribbean and Pacific states. It is right to try and create bigger markets between the African countries and the rest of the region. Otherwise, they have no chance of exporting to the wider global markets. But it is wrong to rely on reciprocal trade with the EU, because that just aggravates Africa’s problems. The state of the current operation is beyond actual European convictions and meaningful development policy. We have to acknowledge that this approach has failed.

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