Heather Saunders is currently studying for an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She is a member of the London RESULTS group and takes an active interest in areas surrounding child survival, global health and education. RESULTS UK would like to thank Heather for her valuable insight and contribution.
Last Thursday $2.6 billion was pledged towards family planning initiatives by rich and developing states at the London Summit on Family Planning. But what does this mean for women and girls in the world’s poorest countries?
According to the WHO, more than 200 million women and girls in developing countries who want to delay, space or avoid getting pregnant, lack access to contraceptives, information and services which, for many, will cost them their lives.
For teenage girls aged 15–19, pregnancy and childbirth are the number one killers, causing 50,000 deaths every year.
The summit organisers – the UK government and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – argue that contraceptive use leads to more education and greater opportunities for girls, helping to end the cycle of poverty for them and their families. Up to a quarter of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa drop out of school due to unintended pregnancies, stifling their potential to improve their lives and their children’s lives. The link between the level of education a girl receives and her future achievements and empowerment is well-established. Putting girls in developing countries through secondary school is one of the most important factors influencing the number of babies they will have, as it increases capacity and motivation to reduce fertility rates.
The money raised – nearly half of it from developing countries – will be enough to give 120 million more women access to effective contraception. This will mean 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy and childbirth, over 50 million fewer abortions, and nearly three million fewer babies dying in the first year of life.
Oxfam’s director Barbara Stocking has pointed out that contraception is not a panacea. For example, girls forced into early marriage often have less control over the choice about when to start a family. It is clear that more action is needed to break down the barriers that prevent women and girls accessing family planning such as the lack of sex education, healthcare, legal rights and cultural practices like child marriage. Developing countries’ commitment to policy change is critical to the success of the summit’s outcomes; one notable achievement of the summit was Malawi’s pledge to raise the legal age of marriage to 18.
Above all, what’s needed is a profound shift that sees women educated and empowered to make the right decisions for themselves and their children, and men able to support these rights. This requires investments for more girls to attend school, and for girls and boys to receive comprehensive education on their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Concentrating on family planning and access to contraception as an issue of women’s and girls’ rights holds promise. The real challenge starts now that the summit is complete; to hold countries to their commitments. Supporting a greater focus on education and empowerment will mean the demand for family planning comes from women themselves.