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Wanted: New Champions for Family Planning

October 18, 2012

This Fall is proving to be a watershed moment for women’s development issues, especially on reproductive health and sustainable development.  The foundation was well laid this summer with two milestone events:  the UN “Rio+20” conference on sustainable development in June, and the London Family Planning Summit in July.  Now comes the string of leadership-centered follow-up opportunities “to go from the wedding to the marriage” where all the hard work is hammered out: the who, what, when, where and how it will all get done.  This will be no small feat given the scale of global health and development topics, and the more than 7 billion “stakeholders” (human beings!) affected by it all.

This month in New York brought the convening of the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA) and Clinton Global Initiative meetings.  In-between the official plenaries are the critical, often understated side-events where leaders from around the world talk more in-depth amongst themselves about women’s health, poverty, where we are going on sustainable development, or where we stand with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  These side conversations are where much of the campaign strategy occurs, where plans are made that drive key development agendas.  The ones I pay most attention to are on population, women, and sustainable development issues.

Something’s Missing: Local Voices

But with all this buzz, something is missing, a certain poignant dimension. 

This is not a criticism, just an observation that I know is also permeating the thoughts of the leaders and activists I was among in the recent NY and DC events.  We notice a glaring gap in the conversations, as if we’re talking about someone who isn’t in the room, ones not here to give us their own story and view, to color and ground what we are deliberating and advocating. 

I can picture them: the Ugandan peasant farmer who eloquently talks about the need for family planning after having ten children, in order to relieve basic resource (food, water, heat), education and economic pressures; the Kenyan village leader who has to walk much further now to collect wood and fetch clean drinking water; the Philipino woman who is mobilizing youth on women’s and reproductive health and rights in her country.  And then there were the Brazilian youth we visited in the favela during Rio+20, relaying incredibly moving personal accounts and sophisticated ideas – all a surprise, all better informing my work (and many others I am sure), on reproductive health and environmentally sustainable development.

We evoke their stories in NY or Washington DC, but our real work is to find out how to better include these women’s voices and interests at all levels in our debates, deliberations, decision-making - and in how it affects and can benefit them directly over the short and long term, in their homes, villages and communities.

From a Lull to an Opportunity: A New “Family Planning Movement”

Historically there’s been a decade-and-a-half lull in government and donor support for family planning.  Now we are all realizing that things are changing again, in a big way.  We are witnessing a sea-change kick-started by the London Summit and media surrounding it (see the incredible Lancet and LA Times series).  Of the Summit, Jill Sheffield of Women Deliver said:

“There’s loads of evidence as to the myriad benefits of family planning, but still 220 million+ women who want it, don’t have access to family planning.  Now’s our time to move on it, not later, it’s on our doorstep, it’s now.”

Sheffield reflected a resounding note from the leaders and the activists attending the recent meetings:

“We must use the London Summit as a platform to start a movement, not a project, but a new global FP (sic) movement to desensitize family planning and let it take its rightful place among poverty, the economy, health, education and other key factors in addressing global development."

And family planning in reality is not what’s controversial – what is, said British Prime Minister David Cameron at the London Summit is “when women’s lives are lost if we don’t use family planning.” 

All this marks a new time, for new champions, in the form of countries committing unprecedented support and efforts to meet an unmet need for family planning.  But that’s only part of it.

Tomorrow. A New Champion at the Helm of Women’s Health and Development.

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