Opinion: Half a century on, let's make family planning a reality for all

Mamitu Dechase, a midewife and a family planning expert, proposes options to a patient in Bussa Health Center, Oromia Region, Ethiopia. Photo by: Audrée Montpetit / USAID Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-SA

Elizabeth Ayumpou Balang was married as a teenager in Rumbek, South Sudan, and had a child at 18. Yet she held on to her dreams and found out that contraceptives could help her achieve her goals. Elizabeth stayed in school, and now, at 23, is a teacher.

“In our culture, I am not supposed to practice family planning. But I decide for myself and my husband supports me,” she said.

Elizabeth is one of a growing number of women around the world who today have access to a wide range of modern contraceptives, and to the information that allows them to exercise their basic human right to decide when and how often to have children. She is now expecting her second child — a planned pregnancy whose timing works well for her family.

It has been 50 years since world leaders proclaimed family planning a basic human right. This proclamation, at the first International Conference on Human Rights in May 1968, affirmed the right of parents “to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.”

Unlike Elizabeth, however, millions of women around the world are still denied the means and information to exercise this right. What is even more worrisome is that the human right to family planning is still disputed, and even under attack in a number of countries, leaving women with fewer services and choices. As a result, more than 200 million women around the world who want to avoid pregnancy lack modern contraceptives, and more than 800 women die daily from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. This must stop.

Women who do have family planning choices are better empowered to plan their lives, their livelihoods, and their families. This enables them to stay in school and gain more education, seek and keep better jobs, and contribute more to their communities, to their nations and to global prosperity. They become better-off financially and, in turn, their children receive better education, helping trigger a cycle of prosperity that carries over well into future generations.

Family planning saves lives. Ensuring access to it can reduce maternal deaths by a quarter, and child deaths by as much as a fifth. Moreover, family planning is a smart investment. Every additional $1 invested in family planning can save governments $2.20 for the cost of pregnancy-related care — money that can be invested in health care, housing, education, and other public services. Access to family planning facilitates women’s economic participation, and a 2015 McKinsey report found that if women participated in the economy identically to men, it would add $28 trillion to global gross domestic product by 2025 — an increase of 26 percent.

What makes the provision of family planning services especially urgent is the 1.8 billion young people aged 10-24 who are entering their childbearing years. Four out of 5 of them live in developing countries, where unmet need for modern contraception accounts for more than 8 in 10 of all unintended pregnancies.

This has far-reaching consequences. When a teenager gets pregnant, she may be forced to drop out of school, diminishing her job prospects and making her more vulnerable to poverty and exclusion. When her body is not mature enough to bear a child, her health often suffers. And this can mean death, as complications from pregnancy and birth are the number one killer of 15- to 19-year-old girls in developing countries.

The United Nations Population Fund is committed to ending the unmet need for family planning by 2030 and is already the world’s largest public provider of contraceptives for developing countries. We work to reach women and adolescent girls with a full range of contraceptive choices, no matter where they live, in an environment that respects privacy and confidentiality. Last year alone, contraceptives provided by UNFPA helped avert 6.5 million unintended pregnancies; 15,000 maternal deaths; 97,000 child deaths; and 1.9 million unsafe abortions. This is the life-saving dimension of a human right in action.

Half a century later, we must redouble our efforts to defend this right and turn it into a reality for every woman and adolescent girl, everywhere. All women deserve the basic freedom to decide whether, when, and how often to bear children. It is their right.

About the author

  • Natalia kanem

    Natalia Kanem

    Natalia Kanem was appointed executive director of the United Nations Population Fund in October 2017, becoming the fund's fifth executive director since it became operational in 1969. She has more than 30 years of strategic leadership experience in the fields of medicine, public and reproductive health, peace, social justice, and philanthropy.