Washington (CNN)The US cut funding for a UN program for women and girls, a move that critics said was based on faulty information, could lead to greater instability in the Middle East and hurt women around the world.
The United States, as promised, has drastically cut funding to the United Nations’ most significant population agency, which helps women in 155 countries around the world.
The Trump administration announced the move late Monday, sending notice that it would pull $32.5 million from the United Nations Population Fund because it works with the Chinese government, which forces its citizens into coercive abortions and involuntary sterilization.
UN officials said that the UNFPA, as the group is known, has nothing to do with abortion. And they said that because the US funding goes largely to emergency aid at a time when the world is facing the worst cluster of humanitarian crises in decades, the impact on refugees and women in crisis will be disproportionate.
The decision “could have devastating effects on the health of vulnerable women and girls and their families around the world,” said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres through a spokesman.
Guterres “deeply regrets the decision by the United States to cut financial support for the UN Population Fund (and) believes that the decision is based on an inaccurate perception of the nature and importance of the work done by UNFPA,” said his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
In Syria, UNPFA said it has helped an estimated 48,000 women with safe childbirth, some 74,700 individuals with gender-based violence outreach, and offered health services and psychological support. It has created 64 women’s centers and safe spaces.
In Iraq, it has created primary health centers, women’s centers that provide support for survivors of gender-based violence and a dedicated center where more than 700 Yazidi survivors of sexual violence receive mental health, psychosocial and medical support, among other projects.
UK Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft told reporters that “the UK continues to support that part of the United Nations.”
Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog said his country is “very concerned about the Americans cutting the funds to the UNFPA. We think UNFPA are doing a great job, we support them, we think they save lives.”
A provision called the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which has been included in every Foreign Operations budget act since 1985, already makes it illegal for US taxpayer dollars to fund groups that fund abortion.
But President Donald Trump on January 23 signed an executive order that directed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to ensure that US tax dollars don’t fund groups or programs that “support or participate in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”
Tillerson, who is cutting the State Department budget by 28%, made a determination that the directive applied to UNFPA, which the US helped found in 1969.
UNFPA partners on family planning with “the Chinese government agency responsible for implementing China’s coercive family planning policies,” said a State Department official. “UNFPA can therefore be found for purposes of the statute to support, or participate in the management of, that Chinese agency’s coercive program. We will continue to consult closely with UNFPA to assess carefully whether UNFPA’s programs should warrant the restriction in future years.”
The UNFPA refuted the US claim that it supported abortion and said it regretted the US’ decision. The group also indicated that they hoped Washington would reverse course.
“We have always valued the United States as a trusted partner and leader in helping to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled,” UNFPA said in a statement. “We, therefore, look forward to continuing our work with the United States to address these global concerns and to restore our strong partnership to save the lives of women and girls.”
UN officials said the decision was incomprehensible. “UNFPA does not fund or perform abortions anywhere in the world. Period. Even where abortion is legal,” said Seema Jalan, executive director of the Universal Access Project at the UN Foundation. “Second, UNFPA has never and does not promote coercion or birth quotas anywhere in the world.”
In fact, the work UNFPA has done in China has had the effect of reducing abortions, said Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the United Nations Foundation. UNFPA’s “primary goal has been to move China away from the One Child policy — that’s what drives up China’s abortion rate and UNFPA has successfully moved them away from that policy.”
The State Department official said the funds would be transferred to the Global Health Programs account, for use by the US Agency for International Development to support family planning, maternal and reproductive health activities. But UN officials said the money won’t help people who need it most, people in places the US often won’t go, but the UN will.
“UNFPA is often the first — and in some cases the only — health provider in humanitarian crises,” said UN Foundation president Kathy Calvin, noting that the group is “often in places where the US can’t be.”
Last year, she said UNFPA used funding from the US to reach 9 million people in crisis situations with HIV/AIDS prevention services, domestic violence counseling, pregnancy checkups, safe childbirth as well as midwife training, pre-natal care and safe delivery services. They are also working to end child marriage and female genital mutilation.
Longer term, Yeo said the cuts, particularly in the Middle East, “will undoubtedly increase instability among refugee populations and encourage refugees to migrate to other countries,” to seek safety, food and shelter.
“When families feel insecure, it leads to situations where they either migrate or you end up with kids who are separated from their families, young men leaving home at an early age,” he said.”It’s a toxic soup for luring young people into violent extremism and UNFPA’s work is a core element in reducing that toxic soup.”