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Thu Jun 23, 2016, 12:38 PM

The Guardian view on family planning: the unsung human right

The Guardian view on family planning: the unsung human right

Millions of women are barred either by cultural taboo, cost or availability from being able to decide for themselves when they have children. Empowering them to take control should be a basic objective of every human health project

A family planning advertisement in, Cotonu, Benin. Photograph: Godong/Alamy

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Population growth is certainly not the only cause of the unprecedented movement of people around the globe, nor of the 65 million displaced people that the UN drew attention to on World Refugee Day earlier this week. War, climate change and corruption also contribute to sometimes catastrophic economic insecurity. But population pressures are an important part of the story. They can both drive development and be a barrier to it. Giving women and girls the power to choose for themselves when they get pregnant is thus not only a fundamental human right, but a big part of the solution.

Next month marks the halfway stage of the Family Planning 2020 initiative, an attempt to get 120 million more women and girls in 69 countries using contraception, that was launched at a London conference in 2012. According to the UNís population fund, there are twice that number who would like to be able to avoid getting pregnant if they could. But cost, availability and lack of knowledge as well as, in some countries, cultural taboos and social pressures that make pregnancy even for young teenagers a desirable objective, all contribute to making it impossible. Breaking down the barriers that stop women and girls having the right to choose should be at the heart of every development project.

This is a vital aspect of womenís health; yet it often feels like the poor relation in development. In 2014, the Department for International Developmentís total budget was more than £10bn. Of that, just £200m was committed to family planning. At the London conference, the prime minister pledged to provide 24 million additional girls and women with family planning by 2020, preventing hundreds of thousands of unwanted pregnancies and thousands of deaths. But the departmentís main focus in womenís health tends to be on eradicating female genital mutilation and ending child marriage Ė important, of course, but only a small part of a much bigger story.
The same is true in refugee camps, one of the least safe places in the world for girls and young women. An unwanted pregnancy is one more nightmare for a displaced woman; campaigners argue that contraception and access to safe abortion should be treated with the same urgency as water, food and shelter.

On a day when itís reported that drones are being used to deliver abortion pills to women in Northern Ireland, it is clear that an abuse of a human right that is not always easy to solve with money and resources alone, even in the developed world. There are many countries and many societies where the status of women allows men to feel entitled to deny them control of their own fertility. For those women who do have that control, it is easy to take it for granted. Conversely, the scale of the task of breaking down the barriers that stop it being a universal right is daunting. But for women and girls everywhere, it must become a development priority.


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