At a recent “She Matters” conference in Berlin, Germany, a group of parliamentarians, nongovernmental organizations and practitioners convened to discuss how they could best enable the economic empowerment of women — an area that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has identified as a priority for the upcoming G-7 summit in early June.
At the event, Devex sat down with Ann Starrs, new CEO of the Guttmacher Institute — an organization advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights through research, education and policy analysis — to discuss future plans in pursuit of this mission.
Starrs outlined the pressing nature of action in this area: While the number of women who wished to avoid pregnancy through effective contraception had grown from 510 million in 2003 to 652 million in 2014, there were still 225 million women worldwide who wished to avoid pregnancy but were not using effective methods. Progress, Starrs said, had profound implications for the autonomy of the lives that these women wished to lead, and had all manner of socio-economic benefits.
But how can global development professionals harness the tools of economic empowerment to ensure a fairer — and more prosperous — future for women and girls? Starrs weighed in with her top five calls to action.
1. Remind people of the economic case for SRHR.
“An investment in sexual and reproductive health is an issue of rights and justice,” Starrs said. “But there are also economic benefits for women, for their families — and those economic benefits apply at the country level and the global level as well.”
Women who were able both to control their fertility and safely undergo childbirth were better able to complete their education, participate more fully in the labor force, have increased productivity and earnings, and enjoy higher household savings and assets.
Moreover, according to Starr, these benefits accrue not only to them, but also to their children, with the Copenhagen Consensus Center estimating that for every $1 invested in family planning services in the developing world, the value of the benefits that accrue is $150.
2. Celebrate examples of those who are doing this work well.
It is important, Starrs noted, to highlight the work of those nations already having significant success in this field. These included the United States, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Nordic countries.
Among countries in the developing world, Starrs drew attention to Bangladesh, which had made “huge strides” in reducing maternal mortality and addressing the unmet need for contraception.
3. Keep the focus on women having the family size they want.
Starrs felt that the frequent emphasis upon reducing fertility rates was misplaced. Instead, it is more effective to enable women to have the number of children they want.
“In the old days, when countries had targets for reducing population growth, if you enabled women to have the number of children they wanted to have, in most cases you would reach or exceed the targets for reducing population,” Starr said. “So we don’t need to take a coercive ‘We need to reduce population growth’ approach.”
4. Urge private sector CEOs to become advocates for change.
The private sector is already doing a great deal to address change, Starrs said, highlighting partnerships with civil society, governments and donors for the design and implementation of services in this field.
However, there is another way in which she believed that it could help.
“Another key role that often isn’t talked about enough is the role of the private sector in actually speaking up about these issues — particularly for SRHR, which is sometimes seen as controversial, or at least as sensitive,” Starrs said. “Having CEOs of major corporations stand up and say ‘We support a woman’s right to sexual and reproductive health services’ would be huge.”
5. Enable and learn from the work of private sector providers.
The CEO said that it was very important to learn from the examples set by the private sector, which were responsible for the majority of service provision in sub-Saharan Africa and many parts of south Asia. Among these, she singled out Uganda and Rwanda for particular praise.
The challenge in the latter case, which in her view had been successfully addressed, was to ensure that cost of private services did not become a barrier to use. This had been achieved, Starrs said, through the use of a government health insurance program, where the premium paid by users had reduced or altogether eliminated the cost barriers. Starrs asserted that the replication of similar models would have a lasting and significant socio-economic benefit for women and their communities.
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