Reproductive choice: still one of development’s greatest taboos
Tomorrow on World Population Day international leaders will meet in London for the start of a major summit to secure the funding needed to provide family planning for 120 million more women in the poorest countries by 2020. The summit, which is being hosted by the UK Government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been heralded as an opportunity to enable women to take charge of their lives for the better.
An urgent need for action
There’s little doubt that the focus on women’s reproductive rights is desperately needed. There’s much criticism of the decades of neglect in funding for family planning. Aid for family planning as a proportion of total aid for health has declined over the past decade. One of the biggest aid donors, the United States, cut its funding for family planning by at least 25 percent over the past 15 years.
It’s hardly surprising then that the most “off-track” of all the Millennium Development Goals is the one on maternal and reproductive health. Unmet need for family planning remains high in most regions and there are an estimated 200 million women in developing countries that lack access to the information and services needed to delay or space the number of children they have.
Heated discussions ahead of the summit
But while the cause is clearly an urgent one, the summit itself has generated controversy even before it has begun. Questions have been asked about the conspicuous absence of any discussion of safe abortion, an issue which the UK Department for International Development supports but which the Gates’ Foundation has no position on. For many women’s rights advocates, safe and legal abortion cannot be dismissed as a “side issue” and must be absolutely central to any sensible discussion of reproductive rights – not least because unsafe abortion is the second leading cause of maternal mortality in the world.
Another factor sparking heated discussions ahead of the summit is that family planning has been tainted by its association with ‘population control’. Civil society organisations have raised concerns about the risk of a return to coercive family planning programmes where quality of care and informed consent are ignored. A civil society declaration, signed by organisations around the world including some of Womankind’s partners, demands that women’s autonomy and agency to decide freely on matters related to sexual and reproductive health without any discrimination or coercion must be at the very centre of efforts to improve women’s reproductive rights.
Reproductive rights under attack
Perhaps the biggest worry of all is what we can realistically hope to achieve in a global context marked by increasing backlash against women’s autonomy and sexual and reproductive rights. The Family Planning Summit follows hot on the heels of the Rio+20 United Nations Sustainable Development Summit last month, which saw a vicious assault on women’s reproductive rights. Earlier this year, the UN Commission on the Status of Women ended for the first time without any agreement, due to opposition from conservative and fundamentalist forces, with reproductive rights being the principle cause of contention.
Putting women’s rights first
Being able to decide when and whether to have children may be one of the most fundamental human rights, but it is clear that it is also one of the most contested. In this hostile environment, the fact that the UK government is taking a stand and mobilising other governments to follow suit is more important than ever. We hope that the UK will make the most of this huge opportunity to champion an ambitious and holistic reproductive health agenda that has women’s and girls’ human rights at its heart.