Giving girls power with family planning

Friday, 13 July 2012

Like every woman I know, I've always taken it for granted that I can choose when I want to have children, how many I want to have, and how long I will leave between pregnancies. I've done so because I was taught about what contraception when I was at school. Over the years I've learned more about it - and also where I can get it, which thanks to the NHS, is from my doctor, for free. Pregnancy and contraception are things my husband and I have made decisions about together - meaning that after almost ten years as a couple, I recently gave birth to our first child.

Most of you reading this won't find that unusual, but for hundreds of millions of women the world over, the reality is very different. Right now, 22 million women have an unmet need for family planning. For them, accessing birth control is difficult, even impossible. They might have to walk for several days to reach a clinic, or deal with judgmental attitudes from people in their communities or healthcare providers. That is, of course, if they're aware of the different methods of contraception and how they work. Myths and misinformation abound, and often, their husbands are resistant to the idea.

This is obviously bad news for women and girls. Lack of access to birth control is one problem, but when you combine this with poverty, poor nutrition, child marriage, gender inequality, and poor medical care, it results in thousands of lives being lost every year. On Monday I was able to find out more about just how family planning can save lives, at an evening hosted by Save the Children to promote their Give Girls Power campaign. The charity has been just one of many mobilising to encourage governments to take action this week at Wednesday's family planning summit in London, and commit to helping millions of women access contraception.

I didn't know that pregnancy and childbirth is the number one killer of young women aged between 15 and 19. That's a huge issue in countries where child marriage is common, where discussion of sex and contraception is taboo and where patriarchal culture dictates that men make the rules, while women do as they're told. Save the Children's interactive game created as part of the campaign asks us: "Imagine what life would be like if you weren't able to make your own decisions". It illustrates just how tough - and dangerous - life is for millions of teenage girls.

Visiting the event on Monday was 17-year-old Aselefe, a family planning campaigner and peer educator from Ethiopia. She told us about phoning a contraception helpline at the age of 16, only to be told that they couldn't provide her with any information as she was "too young", and unmarried. Aselefe explained about the "silence" surrounding sex she feels exists between Ethiopian mothers and daughters, meaning that many young women don't know the facts of life - something that frequently causes problems, especially since the average age of marriage in rural areas is just 14.

One of ten children, Aselefe said she didn't want the same sort of life as her mother. She told us that she is literally changing lives through her work as a peer educator, and spoke of her wish to see sex education made part of the school curriculum, and family planning available in all rural health centres.

"It's important to give decision-making abilities to girls," she said.

Wednesday's summit, organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government, resulted in global leaders promising $2.6bn to make sure that family planning services will reach an additional 120 million women and girls in the world's poorest countries by 2020. David Cameron also met Aselefe at the summit. 

"Today we are investing in hope for Aselefe and girls like her," he said. He pledged to double Britain's current commitment to family planning by contributing over £500m over the next eight years. According to the summit's organisers, the commitments made on Wednesday will result in 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy and childbirth, 110m fewer unintended pregnancies, 50m fewer abortions, and 3m fewer babies dying in their first year of life. 

The hard work of Save the Children and other organisations seems to have paid off, and they're looking forward to a future of "groundbreaking" changes for women and girls. 

Read Save the Children's report, Every Woman's Right: How family planning saves women's lives. Or share your personal experiences with contraception and access at the Gates Foundation's No Controversy.

This post was originally published at BitchBuzz.

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