In the Bundelkhand region of India, the “Pink Gang” is a band of women who are fighting back against abusive husbands, corrupt officials and injustice, and to raise their voices against the system. Photo by: lecercle / CC BY-NC-SA

In two decades working with DSW — Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung — I have witnessed significant progress made in advancing the cause of young women and girls.

The ability of young women and girls to choose their own futures is fundamental to the social and economic development of the communities in which they live.

They have the right to be their own agents of change.

To achieve this, the international community needs to secure their right to control their own health, sexuality and reproduction. We have a huge opportunity in the next 18 months to make this happen.

The discrimination faced by women and girls regarding their access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is one of the key aspects impeding the socio-economic empowerment of women — and is hampering the development of low- and middle-income countries.

A lack of information and a persistent unmet need for contraceptives — as well as social norms and harmful traditions — lead to many girls and young women being prevented from deciding freely about their own bodies, sexuality and reproduction.

Practical impact

The practical impact of this is stark.

Between 8 percent and 10 percent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa drop out of school early because of unintended pregnancies. While rates of maternal and newborn mortality have dropped in recent years, today one woman dies every two minutes due to complications in childbirth — and many of these are girls and young adolescents.

But there is hope.

Investment in meeting the family planning and SRHR needs of women can have huge implications. It would cut newborn and maternal mortality, reduce unintended pregnancies and reduce the devastating impact of unsafe abortions.

Furthermore — according to United Nations Population Fund data — every $1 spent on the provision of family planning services can save governments up to $31 on health care, water, education, housing and other costs. This not only results in a major life investment but also makes economic sense, relieving pressures on national budgets and enabling governments to do more with their own resources.

Access to SRHR services will increase the life expectancy of both mothers and children, create incentives for investment in education and schooling for girls, result in higher incomes for more girls who are able to finish school, and empower them to become positive members of their local communities.

Empowering decisions

Fundamentally, this means working with girls and young women to support them to make the decisions that they see as important for their own lives.

As part of our work with local communities in East Africa, this is something that we strive to achieve every day.

For example our GeNext Uganda project called “My Life, My Future!” — undertaken in partnership with Bayer HealthCare — involves working closely with young people via our youth club networks. The focus of the project is to develop youth champions — or ambassadors — that can engage with their communities and provide effective peer-to-peer education, counselling and information on SRHR and family planning. Through this project, young women and men are given the tools to plan ahead and build contraception into their future plans, making informed decisions about their own sexual health.

Framing the debate

Given that we know what the issues are, we know what tools we need and we know the transformative impact of these interventions, it begs three questions:

  1. How can we work with girls around the globe to enable them to secure their right to decide on their own futures?

  2. How can we bring SRHR front and center in debates on gender equality and global health?

  3. How do we ensure that SRHR — fundamental in freeing girls to make their own futures — is no longer simply seen as a “women’s issue”?

Between now and September 2015, when world leaders hope to finalize a global development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, there are several opportunities to map a way forward in answering these key questions and to secure — concretely — the rights of young women and girls to make their sexual health a central tenet of international development policy.

As a member of the International Conference on Population and Development’s high-level taskforce — charged with working out the future of the ICDP process — I am proud to see the progress that has been made in bringing SRHR closer to the mainstream of development policy discussions.

The success of the ICPD taskforce will directly impact on the position of SRHR and family planning in the post-2015 framework. It is our strong belief that there must be standalone goals for health, gender and education, which each encompass specific and measurable targets and indicators for SRHR.

Community and sustainable development

These must focus on the provision of services, information, and products — as well as comprehensive sexuality education for both men and women — with a focus on young adolescents. It will be important to embed this process in the broader community and broader goals of sustainable development and the socio-economic empowerment of girls and young women.

Including SRHR — through specific indicators and targets — in the successors to the Millennium Development Goals would be the most effective way of ensuring that they form a key element of the new development framework.

We will work flat-out to make sure that these voices are heard between now and September 2015 — and the work will continue in earnest next month when we gather in New York for the U.N. Commission on Population and Development.

Girls of today, women of tomorrow

As a community, we need to take advantage of all opportunities to continue to position SRHR and family planning as the means by which we can ensure that the girls of today can become the women of tomorrow.

Unintended pregnancies — particularly among girls and young adolescents — are among the root causes of current high rates of maternal and newborn morbidity and mortality. Too many pregnant women around the world are still girls, as a result of a lack of access to modern, safe and effective means of family planning. Girls and young women are more likely to give birth to low-birth-weight babies, who in turn are more likely to grow up to become small adult women — perpetuating an intergenerational cycle which deprives these women of a chance to fulfil their potential.

We will continue to advocate for the fundamental position of SRHR and family planning in this effort.

We also call on our colleagues in the development community to focus their attention for the next 18 months and work with us to help girls develop the tools and skills to build their own futures — empowering them to take control of their health and wellbeing, to finish school, to join the workforce, and to determine themselves when and how many children they want.

As UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said recently on the occasion of International Women’s Day, “Progress for them is progress for all.”

This progress is crucial not only for the girls themselves, but for their communities and for future generations.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Renate Baehr

    Renate Baehr is the executive director of DSW — Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung. She has a longstanding record of successful advocacy, policy and public awareness-raising work in the fields of global health and sexual and reproductive health and rights in Germany and Europe. She played the lead role in establishing DSW’s Parliamentary Advisory Committee in 2003, regularly advises the German parliament on SRHR issues and serves as a member of the international high-level taskforce for ICPD.