Women senators switch aid focus to health

Sydney Morning Herald
March 18, 2006

By Stephanie Peatling

AUSTRALIA'S aid program must be overhauled and more funding given to health care, say the four women senators behind the RU486 debate. Sex education and reproductive rights should be emphasised, they say.

The existing aid program is too narrowly focused on security and governance in neighbouring countries such as East Timor and Papua New Guinea, according to a submission sent to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer.

"A central objective of Australian health policy should be about equity and strengthening the voices and power of poor people to assert claims," the submission says. "While governance and security are important for all nations, this should not be at the expense of basic services that contribute to the long-term economic growth, productivity and social stability of nations."

The four female senators, who succeeded in having the ministerial veto removed from so-called abortion drugs, named reproductive rights for women in developing countries as another area they were keen to pursue.

The Democrats senator Lyn Allison and the Minister for Workforce Participation, Sharman Stone, have been instrumental in trying to raise the issue of women's reproductive rights in developing countries.

Senator Allison said this week that East Timor and Papua New Guinea were countries in desperate need of funding for health care and education programs.

"East Timor is the poorest country and the country with an enormous fertility rate with high rates of maternal and infant death," Senator Allison said.

"Australians are very supportive of helping East Timor, for a range of historical reasons, and, I think, they would be distressed if they thought we were walking away from our responsibilities."

Mr Downer is preparing a white paper on Australia's aid program, which will be published this year. But his parliamentary colleagues, from all parties, have told him funding is needed in areas such as sex education, domestic violence and better job opportunities and that this is just as important as work in areas such as nutrition.

Much of the health and education work is now done by church groups, which, the submission says, should be required to report on rates of disease and how they are directing their funding.

The parliamentary group has met Mr Downer and also had briefings from AusAID in which they have asked for more information on reproductive health work.

AusAID recently reopened a small section on the area after disbanding it due to pressure from the former independent senator Brian Harradine.

The senators' submission argues that spending on sexual health programs would result in higher productivity because more women would be able to take on paid employment rather than staying at home.

"Effective interventions to prevent or treat most conditions that kill women of reproductive age and enable them to protect their health exist," the submission says. "The costs people incur in managing their health are often catastrophic and deepen poverty. Many of the steps needed to alleviate this can begin now."


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