At the close of last week’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, those concerned with women’s rights expressed disappointment at how little attention gender equality and women’s reproductive health and rights received. Now, we are turning our attention to another gathering of influential development leaders, the London Family Planning Summit. Co-hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K. Department for International Development and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. Population Fund, the event is intended to elevate family planning as a global health and development priority and generate much-needed financial commitments for family planning supplies and programs.
Given the theme of the Summit, one would expect issues of reproductive rights and gender equality to be front and center. But let’s not make assumptions. The conversation often focuses on the new and exciting, like the latest contraceptive technologies and delivery innovations. In the Summit dialogue and subsequent commitments, those issues need to be balanced with commitments to women’s rights, reproductive rights and female empowerment, which are inextricably linked — one cannot be addressed without the other.
Family planning can have an empowering effect on women and girls. Research has shown that using contraception leads to better prospects for employment and working for pay. For girls, avoiding unintended pregnancies allows them to stay in school. Indeed, the social, political and economic benefits that come from supporting women to control the size of their families and the timing of their pregnancies make family planning one of the most important drivers of modern development efforts.
For women, families and communities to enjoy the far-reaching benefits of family planning, the first step is making contraceptives more widely available. But our efforts cannot end there. Preventing unintended pregnancies requires that women are able make decisions about how many children to have and when, have access to family planning services when pregnancy prevention is desired and can initiate and continue use of a contraceptive method as long as they wish to avoid pregnancy. These can be deceptively complex tasks for many women because of the social and cultural environment in which they live. Restrictions on women’s mobility and lack of access to transportation and financial resources may limit their ability to seek contraceptive services. In addition, husbands, who tend to desire more children than their wives, often hold greater decision-making power about childbearing, contraceptive use, and the timing and conditions of sex. Women also may not space or limit births because their social and economic status is defined by their ability to bear children.
In short, many women are often unable to use contraception for a variety of reasons rooted in gender inequality.
Even when highly effective biomedical interventions that are focused on the individual — like contraception — are available, factors beyond individual control often pose obstacles to their use. Gender inequality and harmful gender norms — including those that that pressure men and boys to be violent and dominate sexual decision-making — have long been recognized as obstacles to family planning use and better reproductive health and development outcomes. Structural interventions focused on transforming these norms, upholding women’s rights, and promoting greater gender equality must accompany our efforts to strengthen family planning services and increase availability of contraceptive methods. While contraceptive technologies and family planning programs have the potential to empower women, their impact will be greater if underlying structures contributing to women’s vulnerability and risk of unintended pregnancy — including discriminatory social norms, rights violations and economic dependency — also are addressed.
How will the impact of the London Summit be measured? Certainly, the amount of funds committed for global family planning efforts will be one immediate measure of success. A bit farther down the road, the impact of the Summit might be viewed in terms of increases in contraceptive prevalence and reductions in unmet need for family planning that are achieved from these additional program investments. Ultimately, we will want to know if our commitments have had a transformative effect on women, families, communities and societies — improving the lives of citizens. Achieving these outcomes will require that women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality are the foundation of the discussions at the event and the actions that follow.