Malta holds back the EU on sexual rights in development policy

The EU court has ruled that the European Commission was entitled to refuse to table a bill banning funding for abortion services [DFID/Flickr]

EU foreign affairs ministers have strengthened their stance on gender equality in development policy. But progress on sexual and reproductive rights, particularly abortion, has been hampered by Maltese opposition. EURACTIV France reports

The Foreign Affairs Council approved the Commission’s plans to increase the emphasis on the sensitive issue of gender equality in development policy on Monday (26 October). The EU’s definitive Gender Action Plan for 2016-2020 is set to be adopted early next year.

>>Read: EU divided over abortion in development policy

Gender equality

The European Commission presented its working document on gender equality for 2016-2020 on 22 September. Its aim is to promote gender equality and the respect of sexual and reproductive rights in the EU’s development policy.

Neven Mimica, the European Commissioner for Development, said, “The decision to adopt the Gender Action Plan will strengthen Europe’s commitment to the emancipation of women and girls and to equality, and will make our projects and programmes more concrete and targeted.”

>>Read: UK warns MEPs against evangelical attack on EU development aid

The Foreign Affairs Council had already adopted the four main objectives of the Gender Action Plan in May 2015, including the objectives of “ensuring girls’ and women’s physical and psychological integrity”.

The right to abortion

While the Commission had originally intended to refer explicitly to the right to abortion in its working document on gender equality, it was forced to stop short. Instead, it clearly calls for the “promoted, protected and fulfilled right of every individual to have full control over, and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality and sexual and reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion and violence”.

This policy may enjoy broad support across most of the EU, but the question of sexual and reproductive rights remains a touchy one in a number of member states, particularly Malta.

Maltese reservations

“Malta expressed reservations during the Foreign Affairs Council. The Maltese authorities also wrote a letter explaining their position,” a French source said.

The issue of abortion, which is illegal in several European countries, and criminalised in Malta, is central to questions of sexual and reproductive rights. Ireland and Poland also have particularly strict anti-abortion laws.

>>Read: Foreign aid for sexual health sparks hot budget debate

A number of more liberal European countries, including France, Sweden and the Netherlands, have campaigned for a more ambitious EU policy on sexual and reproductive rights. “The Dutch Council presidency, which will take over from the Luxembourgish presidency in January 2016, should push for the adoption of an ambitious agenda,” a French source said.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Sexual and reproductive rights, particularly for women, are a cornerstone of development policy. According to the World Health Organisation, 222 million women in the world today have no control over their sexual and reproductive rights. This situation forces women to seek illegal abortions, which cost the lives of 130 women every day.

>>Read: Commission rejects call to respect right to life in development aid

Still a taboo for many countries, the subject of abortion did not appear in the Millennium Development Goals; only access to contraception figured as a means to cut deaths during pregnancy. Abortion is still absent from the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. 

Illegal abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in developing countries. According to the European Commission's statistics, they cause 16% of maternal deaths, or 47,000 each year.

But the question of sexual and reproductive rights in development policy is a sensitive one. The member states of the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, to take over from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire at the end of 2015. Abortion is not mentioned in either the MDGs or the SDGs. 


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