World Leaders Unite Around a Better Future for Women and Families
A huge step forward for family planning worldwide took place Wednesday, July 11, in London, where more than 200 leaders of the world’s governments, foundations, corporations, and nonprofit groups convened and committed a whopping $2.6 billion over the next eight years toward provision of contraceptive supplies, services, and information throughout developing-world communities. The event, the London Summit on Family Planning, convened at London’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center and put forth a goal of making contraceptives available to 120 million more of the world’s women by 2020.
“It will lift so many people out of poverty, particularly young women. It will give them a chance to have very economically active lives. But more importantly it will give them their choice over their health. And will be better for families generally,” Stephen O’Brien, Great Britain’s minister for international development, told the press.
David Cameron, Britain's Prime Minister (center); and Melinda Gates (third from right) speak with activists at the summit. (photo credit: Time magazine)
Today, contraceptives remain out of reach of more than 220 million women and girls in developing countries. The result is more than 75 million unplanned pregnancies every year. This doesn’t just mean many unwanted new children—and ergo, more abortions. It also means many expectant mothers who lack access to quality medical care and therefore suffer permanent disability or even death during childbirth. And it means myriad impoverished couples and families sinking deeper into poverty because they are pressed with more children than they can support.
“Women in Kenya, Malawi, and India want this power (of family planning). They have told me over and over, woman to woman, just like every mother, they want the very best for their children, and that means they need to be able to plan for them,” said Melinda Gates—cofounder, with Bill Gates, her husband—of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in a conference statement.
Bill and Melinda Gates visit poor communities across the developing world as advocates of family planning. Here, they are spending some time in a village in the Indian state of Bihar. (photo credit: The Guardian)
The Gates’ foundation already invests $70 million a year on global family planning. But it vowed to double that to $140 million a year during each of the next eight years. The Aman Foundation, Merck for Mothers, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the European Commission, and Family Health International also pledged funding increases.
The lion’s share of the $2.6 billion in pledges, however, came from national governments. Heads of state from 13 countries—including seven European nations—attended and announced that they would up their aid funds for family planning. Australia, for example, will be spending $58 million more on family-planning outreach over the next five years. South Korea, Denmark, Norway, France, and the United Kingdom also made new commitments.
Leaders of 24 beneficiary nations—Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Uganda, among others—were also there in force. They individually stated their appreciation for the international support and affirmed their own resolve to maximize their peoples’ access to family-planning services.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation estimates that were the world to reach the goal of ensuring contraceptive services to 120 million more women, it would prevent the deaths of 100,000 mothers and 600,000 children every year. It would also dramatically ease poverty and health crises across the globe: By the foundation’s estimates, every dollar spent on family planning could save $6 on housing, health care, and family services.
“Women say (to me) over and over again, ‘I want to be able to put time between one child and another because if I can, I know I can continue breastfeeding this baby. I can work on my farm. I can feed this one. I care about this child, and then I’ll have another one,’” Ms. Gates told the Guardian.
Not everyone supports Ms. Gates’ goal, however. As she acknowledged in the same interview, the Catholic Church fiercely opposes contraception. Since Africa, in particular, has large populations of devout Catholics, the Church’s stance matters.
Ms. Gates is herself Catholic, and she told her interviewer that she had grappled with the issue. But she also noted that Catholics in the developed world make up their own minds on it: Polls of Catholics in Europe and North America find that solid majorities use birth control and deem it morally acceptable. If contraceptive services become more accessible within more developing-world communities, she stated, their residents might likewise increasingly exercise their own judgment.
“Let women vote with their feet,” Ms. Gates said. “Let the women in Africa decide. The choice is up to them.” Andrew Mitchell, Great Britain’s international development secretary, said in a speech that antagonism from local religious leaders has stymied family planning in some places. But, he continued, saving lives and ensuring better public health are goals that everyone, whatever their religious beliefs, should support.
"We should avoid the pitfalls from the past, where controversy compromised the message. This is about giving women the ability to choose for themselves," he said. The $2.6 billion in pledges that this one day raised is inspiring. Unfortunately, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, reaching the goal of 120 million more women over the next eight years would cost $4.3 billion, plus another $10 billion to maintain the existing levels of access worldwide.
And all countries involved will have to follow through, not just over the next eight years, but beyond. The beneficiary countries will need to sustain the new services, and for that, they will need ongoing help.
All the same, $2.6 billion is a great beginning. It’s all the more inspiring when one considers that most of the benefactor countries hail from Europe, and that this summit takes place in the throes of the worst recession that the continent has seen in decades. France, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, are all still reeling financially. Yet all still put more money toward this global cause.
That goes to show the importance that family planning holds for families and communities across the globe. Europe’s leaders see it, and that is why they're not letting a rocky economic situation be an excuse to skimp. Let’s all of us, no matter what nation we live in, make sure that our leaders see it, too—and that they do their part to make a difference.
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