11 July 2012
Today, leaders from government, civil society, the public health community, and the private sector have gathered in London to accelerate progress on one of the world’s most important causes: increasing access to reproductive health care and voluntary family planning. The London Summit on Family Planning – hosted by the UK Department for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with participation from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and others – aims to expand access to voluntary contraception to an additional 120 million women, so they have the tools to make critical decisions about the size of their families and the spacing of their pregnancies.
While the conversation is taking place in London, it matters to communities from Lahore to Lucknow to Lisala. Growing up in Pakistan, I saw firsthand how important access to voluntary family planning is for women in developing countries. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 83 million women in South Asia and 53 million women in sub-Saharan Africa want, but do not have, access to modern contraception. Globally, that number rises to 222 million women and is likely to increase. The ramifications of this unmet need are tragic: every two minutes, a woman dies from complications related to pregnancy.
As the former head of UNFPA, I strongly believe that making sure women have access to contraception and family planning services is one of the smartest investments we can make as a global community. Meeting family planning needs could reduce maternal mortality by one-third and infant mortality by up to 20 percent. When women have the power to plan the timing and spacing of their pregnancies, they are better able to provide health care, nutrition, and education for their children. Adolescent girls who avoid early pregnancy are more likely to stay in school, which increases their economic opportunities. Additionally, research has shown that family planning funding provides a great return on investment for countries, leading to cost savings in their social service budgets. Simply put, support for voluntary family planning is transformative for women, communities, and countries.
While all these benefits are critically important to development, fundamentally, this is an issue of human rights. In the 21st century, all women should have quality reproductive health care, including access to voluntary family planning services.
The global community has made progress in recent decades. When I began my career, family planning and reproductive health issues were not even on the global agenda, while today the world is working toward the goal of universal access to reproductive health. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, through his “Every Woman, Every Child” effort, and UNFPA have made reproductive health and voluntary family planning a key part of global health efforts. Just as important, women in countries across the world are driving change from the ground up.
While progress has been made, much more is needed to meet the needs and fulfill the rights of the world’s women. Voluntary family planning must be a priority for the global community – and it must be backed by adequate and consistent funding from governments and other international donors. In many places, the quality and effectiveness of family planning services need to be improved, and they need to be better integrated into the broader health system.
Today’s London Summit on Family Planning provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring leaders from around the world together to increase support and coordination. What happens in London can spark a movement that ripples across the globe. The international community must seize this moment.
Dr. Nafis Sadik is Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General and Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, the former Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, and a member of the Board of Directors of the United Nations Foundation.
Photo: Pierre Holtz for UNICEF | www.hdptcar.net