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The “Rights” Kind of Progress for Women

By Pamela Barnes, EngenderHealth President & CEO

(This was originally published on RH Reality Check on July 10, 2012.)

During my trip to Guinea a couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of talking with women across the country about their lives and what they most want for themselves. The messages I heard over and over again—not just in Guinea but in places as diverse as India, Tanzania, Ethiopia—were these: I want to live a healthy life...to earn a living...to educate my children.

What can make these things possible?

An important part of the answer is family planning—an extraordinarily simple, but prized, tool that allows women to keep themselves healthy and care for their children. A woman’s ability to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children can determine the course of her future and that of her family.

As I write, a momentous opportunity is just around the corner. On July 11, I will attend a landmark Family Planning Summit in London, where global leaders will convene to garner the resources and political commitments needed to reach an additional 120 million women around the world with family planning by 2020.

It’s about rights. Indeed, reaching 120 million women is an ambitious and laudable goal. But as we seek to reverse decades of family planning neglect, we can’t lose sight of the single most important factor for success: upholding women’s sexual and reproductive rights. The progress we proclaim eight years from now hinges not on whether we’ve merely reached 120 million women and girls with family planning services—but whether they were able to make informed decisions about their health and that they made those decisions completely free from coercion and without barriers such as limited family planning options.

For women in developed countries, this is usually simple enough—when we visit our doctor, we can reasonably expect to get the information we need to make an informed choice that suits our lifestyle and long-term plans, whether it’s condoms, pills, hormonal implants, or permanent methods. With relative ease, we can schedule a procedure or pick up our method of choice at a local pharmacy.

But for women and girls in Ghana, Niger, and many other developing countries, the reality is very different. Many will walk long miles with their children to reach a health center, only to learn that their method of choice is out of stock, forcing them to make the journey again or worse, to forgo contraception altogether.

Contraceptives can only go so far. Keeping clinics fully stocked is merely a fraction of the equation. Women also need accurate information to understand how family planning can affect their health so they can make informed choices that best support their individual needs. This is only possible when local health providers are properly trained to offer high-quality counseling and have the vital skills needed to uphold women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Over 70 years, EngenderHealth has worked in more than 100 countries around the world to imbue generations of health providers with these very qualifications and give them the means to empower their clients to exercise their rights.

Men have an important role to play. Finally, true progress will be no more than a distant dream if we don’t recognize men’s role in supporting their partners’ health. Too often, men wield decision-making power when it comes to sexual relations or reproductive health. But through our pioneering work to engage men in Tanzania and 25 other countries, we have seen how men can be the most powerful champions for their partners’ health, whether by accompanying their pregnant wives to health centers or becoming outspoken advocates within their communities and promoting family planning as key to improving health and greater prosperity.

We know what the factors are for success. Let us build on our years of rich experience and harness this momentous opportunity before us to achieve the right kind of progress for women. Learn more about family planning at our special summit webpage, including what you can do to share this message cause and help women around the world build the best possible future for themselves and their families.

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