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We Need to Change the Way We Think About Reproductive Rights

As the United States pulls out of the global family planning movement, new space is opening to reconsider how we provide family planning to women and girls worldwide, and what equality really means.

Written by Ulla Müller Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Nigeria bokoharam displaced
We need to take contraception out of clinics and into the community. AFP/Stefan Heunis

There’s a steady drumbeat growing behind the global effort to support the rights of women and girls to make their own choices about their sexuality, their reproductive health and their lives.

We heard it earlier this year at the launch of the She Decides initiative in Belgium, where leaders from more than 50 countries came together to pledge money and political will toward supporting women’s rights, including reproductive rights. And we hear it now as leaders again gather in London at a global Family Planning Summit in support of the Family Planning 2020 global partnership known as FP2020.

It’s a drumbeat borne of some anxiety, to be sure, as we seek to navigate a new era of unprecedented political and funding challenges.

We are all wrestling with how we will protect the investments and progress we have made now that the United States has stepped back from its role as the largest donor and supporter of family planning in the world.

Yet with this comes a renewed sense of urgency as traditional and nontraditional players seek to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. This emerging landscape presents us all with new challenges and opportunities as we seek to work with fewer resources.

Even with full political support from the United States, making the case that contraception is a lifesaving intervention has been a tremendous challenge. Against a backdrop of pandemics, poverty and humanitarian crises, the topic somehow fails to ignite the sense of urgency that grabs headlines.

But when you look at the evidence, this defies all logic. The most recent FP2020 progress report found that the use of modern contraception by 300 million women in the world’s least developed countries averted an estimated 82 million unintended pregnancies, 25 million unsafe abortions and 124,000 maternal deaths.

Evidence show us that expanding access to contraceptives is one of the most cost-effective ways to break the cycle of poverty. Particularly in situations of conflict or natural disasters, the inability to access contraception strips women of their dignity and control over their already precarious futures.

The accomplishments that have already occurred under the FP2020 banner are striking, but they are not enough. We must shift the way we think about family planning in a few fundamental ways if we are to fulfill our promises to women and girls.

First, we must pivot from seeing family planning as merely a health intervention to viewing it as a social intervention. Women are more than mothers. This is not about motherhood, but personhood and human rights. We must consistently emphasize that women and girls have human rights, and that governments have a positive obligation to respect and fulfill those rights. As such, we must focus on keeping our promises to all women and girls, and reach them wherever they are, irrespective of age, income or whether they have a disability. This entails talking about contraception as part of a full spectrum of sexual and reproductive rights and services, and acknowledging the integral role that safe abortion plays in this spectrum.

Second, we must de-medicalize contraception, which should be widely accessible and not relegated to the clinic, or even to one sector. We must accelerate our efforts to allow a wide range of people to provide contraception, not just health professionals, taking this issue out of the clinic and into the community. If we keep this in the realm of the technical, we are dramatically missing the mark.

Finally, let’s consider what is needed to bring about true equality, and not just equity, for women and girls. When we talk about equity, we assume that men and women start with the same conditions, without recognition that women bear more of the reproductive health burden because of rigid societal norms.  Equality is when women  have equal access to opportunities, resources, and decision-making processes, so that they may full participate as equals in their reproductive and everyday lives.

EngenderHealth is taking its own steps to change the paradigm though a new five-year strategy, called “Women and Girls First,” which is further reflected through our own new commitment to FP2020. Through this commitment, we are looking not just at how many women and girls we reach, but how we reach them, and pushing ourselves to re-examine our own models and approaches so we can do more in the coming years.

Business as usual is no longer sufficient – it’s time to be bold. We can’t be afraid to say where we are falling short. This week in London is a time to celebrate our accomplishments, and also a time to reflect on what innovation actually means, identify our blind spots and breathe a new conscience into this global movement.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and may not reflect those of Women & Girls.

This article has been updated to clarify the author’s position on equality and equity for women.

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