US president-elect Barack Obama will lift a freeze on funding for global family planning programs imposed by the outgoing administration, a US lawmaker said Wednesday.
"We are about to see major cultural change in Washington," Democratic lawmaker Carolyn Maloney told reporters at the launch of the UN population agency's (UNFPA) annual State of World Population report.
"One big change is that UNFPA will be funded," added the congresswoman to applause.
The Obama transition team has not said exactly what the president-elect intends to do upon taking office January 20, though transition co-chair John Podesta said Sunday the incoming adminstration was reviewing "virtually every agency to see where we can move forward."
Outgoing President George W. Bush blocked funding for the UNFPA during his two terms in office, saying the UN agency supports coercive abortion methods in China, a report issued in June by the Guttmacher Institute research group said.
In support of the funding freeze, the Bush administration cited a US law passed in 1985 which prohibits US foreign aid for any organization that the president determines "supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."
"UNFPA operates in more than 150 poor countries, but does not provide or pay for abortion services in any of them," the Guttmacher report said.
"Instead, UNFPA works to reduce the need for abortion by promoting voluntary family planning," it said.
The Bush administration also backed abstinence-only sex education programs in US schools.
"The new administration will face a lot of challenges but we hope that they support and encourage our programs, especially in family planning and AIDS," said UNAIDS senior adviser Pauline Muchina at the launch of the UNFPA report.
"We believe that family planning is very important... it's not a luxury of whether or not you're going to have premarital sex. People need to have access to certain services," said senior UNFPA culture adviser Azza Karam.
According to the State of World Population report, 60 percent of the world's poorest people are women and girls; two-thirds of the 960 million adults around the world who cannot read are women; and 70 percent of children who do not go to school are girls.
Even when laws are enacted to protect women and girls, such as legislation banning child marriage or female genital mutilation, they are sometimes ignored because of cultural practices, Karam said.
"Sometimes, culture is an issue of life or death. One woman dies every minute somewhere in the world because of complications during birth," she said.
But foisting Western solutions on other cultures will not always help.
"We should not impose our own ideologies, our own systems on any other country. The current administration has proven that just does not work," said Maloney.
"To bring about change," she said, reprising an Obama campaign mantra, "We have to be culturally sensitive."
Building maternity clinics in Bolivia would probably not reduce maternal deaths because women in the Andean country prefer having their babies at home, the aid officials at the launch said.
But a UNFPA program to teach Eritrean and Ethiopian clerics about the potentially deadly effects of child marriage on girls -- they get pregnant very early, go on to have many children and run an increased risk of death from birth complications -- led to an agreement from them to stop blessing the marriages.
"Once fathers understand the impact a practice will have on their daughters, they will act differently," said Muchina.
Maloney, who was re-elected to a ninth congressional term last week, said she was "very hopeful, in many ways" about the Obama presidency.
"Six times under Bush, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed funding to continue the critical work of the UNFPA," she said.
"President Obama will have to do nothing but let the will of Congress go through."