Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Giving Voice to Women: London Summit on Family Planning

July 18, 2012

A blog can’t do justice to the energy, excitement, motivation and, really, the impatient optimism last week at the London Summit on Family Planning and among the participants at the Summit, but I want to at least try to pass some of that energy to you to maintain that spirit and to hold us all accountable to commitments made.

Before the Summit began, the conversation on family planning had already been changed to focus on the incontrovertible evidence for the lifesaving health and the economic benefits of family planning – in this, there is no controversy. This was further fueled in the days before the Summit with the release of the  Lancet Series on Family Planning  with its strong evidence on the health, economic, and environmental benefits as a result of investments in family planning.

At the Summit, the clear consensus among the participants was that responding to unmet need for family planning is a human right and we have an obligation to act. Family planning will lead to healthier, wealthier and better educated families and nations. Using a human rights-based approach implies that the world has a moral obligation to help ensure that everyone, equally, has the right to access family planning. And that means making sure women have a choice of which contraceptives to use , it means no coercion, it means inclusiveness, it means equity; and it means provision of quality information and services. I like how Danish Minister Knapen summed it up:

Family planning has to be seen as a human rights issue. We need to move on from human numbers to human lives to human rights.

Danish Minister Knapen

This commitment to the human rights issue came through loudly when many groups pledged to increase their efforts and financial commitments for family planning programs. Most impressively, many of the world’s poorest countries with high unmet need for family planning have committed to work with UNFPA, civil society, private sector partners and donors to strengthen access to and availability of family planning tools, guaranteeing increased access and availability to the women who need it most.

Of course the financial commitments are important to be able to reach those women. But the Summit renewed political will in family planning, something that has been missing for 15 years. And it’s encouraging and inspiring to see new champions and leaders from around the world--from Heads of States, to Ministers of Health, to civil society organizations, foundations, private  sector, professional associations and faith-based organizations--bring attention back to this issue.

“This is a landmark event. Inaction is not an option. We must act to ensure women have equal access.”

Ethiopian Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Stakeholders agreed that women must be at the center of family planning decision-making at all levels. That is not to say that men are not involved, but this fight for women’s empowerment of course must involve women. In Prime Minister Cameron’s words, “Healthy empowered women mean healthy strong countries.” And this agenda is driven by women’s rights, not by population control.

“We are putting women at the very center of family planning. An empowered woman is an engine for a better world for all of us.”

Melinda Gates

The other themes that rang true for stakeholders were the concept of integration and partnerships. Family planning cannot be on its own within the health system. It’s an integral part of all maternal and child health care and should be available every time a woman comes in contact with a health provider.

“Family planning must not be viewed in isolation. It must be seen in the continuum of MNCH strategies.”

Indian Joint Secretary of Health Anuradha Gupta

So now after all of this build-up, planning and preparation, media coverage and a day of ideas and inspiration, what’s the next step towards ensuring that 120 million new women and girls have access to contraceptives by 2020?

All of us (you included) must hold partners and stakeholders accountable to these commitments.

“We must hold ourselves accountable to the women in this world for this initiative we are embarking on.”

Theo Sowa, African Women's Development Fund

This is an opportunity to challenge the status quo by leveraging the attention the issue is receiving and applying the additional resources towards our goal.

I see the Summit as the spark, the catalyst that can make change happen around the world. It has begun. Let’s keep the fire burning and fan the flames in the days ahead.

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