The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS), in conjunction with the BMW Center for German and European Studies, hosted a roundtable discussion with Ulla Tørnæs, the former Danish minister for development coordination on Oct. 12. The roundtable took place in the in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in the ICC building. Tørnæs spoke to a diverse audience which included students, faculty, NGO professionals and Danish Ambassador to the United States Lars Gert Lose. She primarily focused on the role of gender in relation to international security and international development, and also commented on her own career as a policymaker.
Tørnæs used the example of her Aug. visit to South Sudan to emphasize the unique challenges women and girls face in conflict zones around the world. “The fact is that an adolescent girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school,” said Tørnæs. “I think it is absolutely crucial to ensure that humanitarian action takes into account the needs of women and girls.”
“The design of humanitarian programs must consider how the activities can reduce gender-based violence.”
Tørnæs was critical of the United States’ policy towards promoting sexual and reproductive rights abroad. “It is, I believe, no secret that Danish and U.S. policy currently differs,” she said. “We [Denmark] take a leading part in the She Decides movement – the She Decides movement is an international initiative set up to raise financial and political support for sexual and reproductive rights worldwide. Funding mainly benefits organizations that no longer receive US funding after the reinstatement of the so-called global gag rule [by the Trump administration earlier this year].”
However, Tørnæs qualified these statements by saying that She Decides is not meant to be an exclusionary initiative. “Contrary to some belief, She Decides is not a movement against the US,” she said. “Girls and women in South Sudan and many other places of conflict and crisis deserve a better future.”
Tørnæs made some headlines over the summer for saying that Denmark’s family planning aid contributions to developing countries in Africa could play a role in reducing migratory pressures in Denmark and other European countries. When asked about this statement, Tørnæs emphasized the population pressures that many developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa now face.
“The government in Ethiopia is doing its utmost to try to solve the issue of feeding their own population, but they just cannot. This is the cause for young people to leave Africa, that they have, as I said, no hope for the future. And linked to the lack of jobs and the food situation in many countries, climate changes have made me say that we need to address the issue of family planning much more directly,” said Tørnæs. “In some parts of Africa, I also believe that the fertility rate, or the birthrate in itself is a humanitarian crisis in the making.”
Professor Jeni Klugman, the managing director of GIWPS, said she was pleased with the event. “I think it’s just a wonderful opportunity for people to hear from a country and a government that’s really been a world leader,” said Klugman. “Leading by example can be quite powerful, and having someone like the Minister [Tørnæs] who has the practical experience as well from working in education and other portfolios [Tørnæs was Minister for Education in the early 2000s] as well as on the development side is, I think, a really good opportunity for us.”