The Next Generation of Family Planning

Mandy Van Deven, Online Administrator

Family planning is a strategic investment in women, communities, and nations, yet it is still a luxury many take for granted.

In 1994, world leaders charted a new course for global sexual and reproductive health and rights at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. For the first time, the health and rights of women became a central element in an international agreement on population and development when 179 governments adopted the Programme of Action. The pioneering agreement calls on governments to eliminate gender inequality, ensure access to sexual and reproductive health care and family planning, and upholds the right of individuals, especially women, to freely decide when and if to have children.

While an increasing number of women around the world are able to exercise this basic human right today, the promises made in Cairo have been met with uneven implementation. More than 220 million women lack access to modern contraceptives to avoid or delay pregnancy. Nearly half of all abortions worldwide are performed in unsafe conditions, and 98% of unsafe abortions occur in developing countries.

In the 2012 State of the World Population report—By Choice, Not By Chance: Family Planning, Human Rights, and Development—the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) examines the ways family planning unites the disparate aims of the international community. From reducing maternal and child mortality to encouraging girls’ education to growing economies, this report provides ample support for the claim that access to sexual and reproductive health services has had, and will continue to have, a positive affect on the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Similarly, reducing the global unmet need for family planning services would save governments more than $11 billion each year.

While governments and funders made extraordinary commitments in 2012 to expand access to family planning for women worldwide, achieving the Programme of Action requires robust investments in programs and policies that uphold women’s human rights. Respecting girls’ and women’s right to bodily autonomy extends not only to being able to obtain contraceptives or end an unwanted pregnancy; it also includes the freedom to decide whether or not to engage in sexual activity with one’s husband, the right to demand a sexual partner use a condom to prevent HIV transmission, and the right to live free from discrimination and violence.

As the concept of individual liberty takes life in more societies, we are seeing rapid changes in the dynamics of sexual activity, marriage, and childbearing around the globe. The result is the need for an equivalent shift toward effectively addressing the unique needs of traditionally marginalized groups, including women, LGBT people, people living with HIV, sex workers, and youth. People must be able to freely and safely explore their sexuality without discrimination, receive accurate and unbiased information, and access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services without judgment or fear. This requires government policies that protect the sexual rights of all citizens and mechanisms that hold health institutions accountable for providing quality services and meeting human rights standards. It is critical for governments to realize that systemic disparities in access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is not only an infringement on human rights, but also a hindrance to sustainable development, as healthier societies are also more prosperous societies.

The Programme of Action issued a human rights mandate that has yet to be achieved, and though the obstacles to achieving its aims are formidable, they are not insurmountable. The dedication and tenacity of governments, funders, and advocates is needed to realize the just and equal world envisioned in Cairo nearly 20 years ago.

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