Focus on Women & Rights on World Population Day

Jul 11th, 2012 | By | Category: Family Planning

Melinda Gates

By Suzanne York,

July 11, 2012 is World Population Day, and there are reasons to be hopeful that the subject of population, along with empowering women, will be attracting more positive attention and obtaining more positive results.

We are very excited about the London Summit on Family Planning, sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development. The world needs to get behind really investing in voluntary family planning services by making contraceptives more affordable and accessible, with a steady supply, and increase R&D for better and safer contraceptives.

The goal of the gathering is to give 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries access to family planning information, services and supplies by 2020, and to raise $4 billion to do so.

It’s hard to fathom that something that is known to be a cost-effective strategy to reduce unwanted births, abortions and maternal deaths (not to mention to reduce our CO2 emissions and our demands on our environmental resources) is so underfunded and controversial. Yet between 1995 and 2007, financial investment in family planning programs fell by 65% – from $980 million to $340 million.

The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that 222 million women in developing countries want to avoid pregnancy, but lack effective contraception. And in 2012, it is estimated that 80 million untended pregnancies will be in the developing world due to contraceptive failure and non-use among women who do not want a pregnancy soon. Whatever the outcome in London, family planning services should meet this need and provide a wide selection of methods at a cheaper cost for women and their families.

There has been some concern directed at the London Summit by human rights and women’s rights groups. They want to ensure that expanding contraceptive access is done with “full respect for women’s human rights”. On the surface any attempt to bring voluntary family planning services to those who desire it is a great thing, but given the dark history of coercive population measures, everything possible should be done to ensure that efforts undertaken today are based on complete choice without any coercion.

A separate declaration by civil society groups emphasized choice, stating “We recognise the need for urgent action to increase women and men’s access to a broad range of contraceptives, which is essential for free and informed choice, and increased use of FP” (family planning). Many eyes will be watching the summit closely and making sure the results are positive.

On a related note, in the wake of the disappointment at the UN Rio+20 conference – that is, leaving reproductive rights out of the official text due to Vatican opposition – this is something activists and civil society can campaign on and link to sustainability. In the closing day of the Rio talks, a Danish minister for development cooperation called for just that, saying omission of reproductive rights “has created a campaign here in Rio that hasn’t been seen” and more and more people will be standing up for these rights.

Lastly, as we reflect on World Population Day 2012, it is important to bring more men into discussions and outreach efforts. For family planning efforts to be completely successful, men and boys need to be educated and involved as well as women and girls.

Talking about population is unfortunately a contentious issue, but it doesn’t have to be so. If choice, voluntary measures, improved education and access, inclusivity, interconnectedness, and rights-based and holistic approaches are made the norm, then the world should be able to come together for the sake of women, families, and the planet. Empowering women and striving for universal access to family planning services would result in healthier families, improved gender equality and social equity, more food security, opportunities for better economic livelihoods, poverty reduction, and a more sustainable environment.

Hopefully the Gates Foundation can get governments, foundations, and the private sector to support family planning and reproductive rights and deliver what women want and need, not just what developed countries think they should have. Simply having this summit is a wonderful step forward towards raising global awareness.

Perhaps the most important point to remember is that women’s rights are human rights and reproductive rights are central to this. And when women are empowered, the world wins – both people and the planet.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies/





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