Article

To unlock girls’ full potential, they must have power to decide when to have children

This article was first published in The Times on 1 November 2018.

Memunatu Fofanah, a young woman from Sierra Leone, was 15 years old when she became pregnant and was forced to drop out of school. Yet she was determined to return.

She joined a reproductive health youth group supported by the United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Planned Parenthood Association of Sierra Leone, got a contraceptive implant to avoid getting pregnant again until she was ready, and started teaching young women and men in her community about contraceptives.

Memunatu was able to take control of her fertility and return to school because she eventually received access to high-quality, modern contraceptives — an option that should be available to every woman and adolescent girl.

Yet 214 million women and girls in developing countries do not want to become pregnant but are not using modern contraceptives either: because they don’t know about them, can’t afford them, can’t access them, or face stigma and other cultural barriers.

To unlock women’s and girls’ full potential, they must be empowered to decide whether and when to have children, and how many children to have.

Access to modern contraceptives means that women and girls have greater control over their bodies, but because pregnancy and child birth are a leading cause of death for adolescent girls in many low-income countries, family planning also can save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Delayed pregnancies and longer spacing between births leads to fewer unintended pregnancies and improved health and nutrition within families because mothers have more time and resources to invest in their children and in themselves.

Reducing adolescent pregnancies also means that fewer girls drop out of school and more women join the workforce. And for governments, investing in family planning means investing in human capital The health, nutrition, education and skills of their people which in turn powers prosperity.

Take Mozambique, for example, where the Global Financing Facility (GFF) in support of Every Woman Every Child is helping the government significantly increase the size and effectiveness of its investments in health and nutrition. That means focusing on the most marginalised people and the highest-impact health interventions, including contraception.

Working with the GFF, Mozambique is creating a long-term investment plan for family planning and allocating more money to primary and community care in districts with some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy.

The government is scaling up the national family planning programme and dramatically expanding access to sexual and reproductive health information and family planning services in schools.

As the world’s largest provider of donated contraceptives, UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, ensures that contraceptives reach the women and girls who need them most.

Since 2012, UNFPA has procured more than $21 million worth of contraceptives for Mozambique and we are seeing the impact: nearly a million more women and girls in Mozambique have begun using modern contraceptives in the last six years.

Despite the enormous personal, economic and societal benefits of investments in women’s and girls’ health, these issues are chronically deprioritized and under-funded — particularly when it comes to family planning and quality maternal and newborn health and nutrition services.

This must change. Improving and expanding the delivery of health services and empowering women and girls are critical for populations to grow up healthy, educated and able to fully realise their potential.

In less than a week, the international community can help bridge the significant funding gap in women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health and nutrition when donor governments, health and finance ministers from GFF-supported countries, civil society and the private sector gather in Oslo to announce investments in the GFF.

To maximise these commitments, family planning should be recognised as the bedrock of women’s and girls’ health. Millions of women count on the work of UNFPA and the GFF for sustainable, accessible and affordable family planning supplies and services. Governments who step up their investments in the GFF and UNFPA will maximize the impact of each and make their contributions go further.

For us to expand our work, reach more countries, strengthen the family planning services of thousands of community health systems and give millions more women and girls the freedom to choose, we need the support of partners around the world. Together we can build a healthier future for all.

Natalia Kanem, Mariam Claeson

Dr Natalia Kanem is United Nations under-secretary general and UNFPA executive director. Dr Mariam Claeson is the director of the Global Financing Facility