Not long ago, I met a young woman in India named Meena whose daily struggle to provide for her five children left a lasting impression on me. She and her two-week-old baby participated in a family health program that my team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports.
Meena seemed proud of what she had learned from the project’s frontline workers about exclusive breastfeeding and keeping her baby warm. However, when asked if she wanted to have more children, she replied, “I cannot possibly feed, educate and care for the children I already have.”
And while she desperately wanted to provide every good thing to her children, she was not using contraceptives. Shockingly, she asked us to take her youngest child. She then implored, “Please take my two youngest children home with you. They will have a better life there. We have no hope of educating them; no hope for a better life.”
Meena’s story rings true for countless women and girls in developing countries who don’t want to be pregnant but lack access to modern contraceptives.
On July 11, global leaders from rich and poor countries, public health and private sector organisations, civil society and faith-based groups, foundations and academia will gather in London to launch a transformational effort: to empower the world’s poorest women and girls to have the right to decide when and if to have children. The London Summit on Family Planning aims to provide an additional 120 million women – like Meena – with lifesaving contraceptives, information and services by 2020.
This groundbreaking effort promises staggering results. If an additional 120 million women and girls who want contraceptives could get them by 2020, more than 100 million unintended pregnancies could be avoided, 200,000 women and girls saved from dying in pregnancy or childbirth, 50 million abortions prevented, and stunningly, nearly three million babies would not die in their first year of life.
The economic benefits are equally striking – families would become healthier, wealthier, and better educated. In fact, contraceptives are one of the best investments a country can make in its future. Each $1 spent on family planning can save governments up to $6 or more on health, housing, water and other public services.
Reducing unintended pregnancies also leads to fewer girls dropping out of school. The longer girls stay in school, the higher their lifetime earnings will be. These life-changing benefits are passed on to the next generation. Mothers who have had an education are more than twice as likely to send their own children to school compared to mothers with no education.
Our collective efforts to revitalize family planning are based on five guiding principles:
- Unprecedented political commitment and resources are needed to improve the lives of women and girls in developing countries. Robust political commitment, funding and collaboration will make contraceptives, information and services more accessible and affordable to millions of women and girls who want to plan their families. Coordination and collaboration among stakeholders at all levels is critical.
- Women and girls in poor countries have equal rights as those in rich countries to plan their families, and will be free from discrimination or coercion in decisions on contraception. Women and girls will have access to a variety of high quality information, family planning methods and services, according to their individual needs and in keeping with their conscience.
- The Summit will sustain voluntary family planning programs within the continuum of care for women and children, including sexual and reproductive health and rights. This will not be a stand-alone program, but rather one that strengthens the delivery of lifesaving information, counseling, services and supplies to the world’s poorest women and girls. Our collective effort will undoubtedly result in far fewer unintended pregnancies and abortions.
- Programs supported by the Summit will be country-owned and led, and focused on national priorities, conditions and needs. In addition to supporting existing country plans, we will also help countries to formulate new plans and garner the resources to implement them effectively. Best practices and innovations that prove to reach poor families with quality services will be supported and shared with other countries.
- All stakeholders will be accountable for working together to achieve the goal of the Summit. Better information to illuminate barriers that need to be addressed, track progress, and ensure that finances are invested as efficiently and effectively as possible will help to ensure the delivery of quality products and services to women and girls who seek them voluntarily. Data will be shared widely and will strengthen existing accountability mechanisms such as those of the United Nations Secretary General’s Every Woman Every Child initiative and the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Program of Action.
The time to come together is now. The global community has the chance to achieve transformational results that will save millions of lives. This is not business as usual. We owe it to Meena and her sisters throughout the world.
Gary Darmstadt is Director of Family Health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.