Today, July 11, is World Population Day. On October 31 of this year, the world’s population is estimated to reach 7 billion people. In a lot of ways, reaching 7 billion marks a global achievement: People are living longer thanks to healthier lifestyles and great strides in medicine and agriculture. However, a world of 7 billion also poses challenges. Gaps between the rich and poor are increasing dramatically; urbanization and migration continue to put pressures on already crowded cities; and climate change is a growing factor in peoples’ vulnerability to food insecurity, water shortages and weather-related disasters. So while 7 billion is a daunting number, and while it is true that many areas of the world face unsustainable population growth, putting pressures on the environment and critical resources, we cannot address the challenge of a ensuring a sustainable and healthy planet simply by looking at the sheer numbers. Instead, we must focus on the individuals that comprise this global community. More specifically, we MUST invest in women’s reproductive health and family planning needs.
An estimated 215 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for effective contraception and family planning. A recent Guttmacher Institute report found that seven out of ten women in sub-Saharan Africa, South Central Asia and Southeast Asia who are not using modern contraceptives say that their nonuse due the fact that currently available methods do not satisfy their needs. The same study, Contraceptive Technologies: Responding to Women’s Needs, reported that 40% of pregnancies in these regions are unintended, and each year these pregnancies result in approximately 21 million unplanned births, an equal number of abortions, and an estimated 116,000 maternal deaths. Therefore, it is clear that a greater investment in comprehensive reproductive health programs – including the development of new contraceptive methods that address women’s concerns and needs, and the promotion and availability of current, women-initiated contraceptives (such as the female condom) – is required to help women achieve their desired family size, stay healthy, and ultimately, to achieve a sustainable, healthy planet.
In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, 179 countries actually came together and recognized the importance of family planning and reproductive health programs in achieving broader development goals. The ICPD Programme of Action embraced a new, more comprehensive approach to sexual and reproductive health (unlike the past decades of demographic approaches to population growth). This new rights-based plan focused on empowering women by providing them with more choices through access to education, comprehensive services (including HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, and the prevention of gender-based violence) and promoting skill development and employment. In addition to adopting the Programme of Action, the 1994 ICPD donor nations also committed to providing one-third of the total funding needed in order to eliminate the unmet need for contraceptives. Seventeen years later, this commitment is still unrealized.
The United States made a commitment to women around the world in 1994 by promising its fair share of the money needed to realize universal access to reproductive health care. This US $3.7 billion would not only to help end unwanted pregnancies, maternal mortality, and unsafe abortion around the world, it would also dramatically improve women’s empowerment, enabling them to make their own reproductive health decisions and ensure gender equity, while contributing to slowing the population growth our planet is facing.