by Baroness Glenys Kinnock, LCID Honorary Co-President
Whilst warmly welcoming the Family Planning Summit taking place in London this week, hosted by DFID and the Gates Foundation, it is important to emphasise that the central focus on the increase of contraceptive supplies must be juxtaposed with a clear understanding that social and economic development, improved education, and the political and legal rights of women must be integrated fully into the process.
In addition the Gates initiative should insist that national, regional and international commitments to human rights are adhered to by developing country governments when family planning programmes are implemented. That means, for instance, that governments are obliged to deal with, and remove, those barriers which currently deny reproductive health, information and services to adolescents.
What we do know is that when women have access to sexual and reproductive rights, the deaths of women in pregnancy and childbirth are lowered, as are the rates of teenage pregnancies and also the number of abortions. Provision of family planning services should, as we know from our own experience, include midwife services and emergency obstetric care.
Also when access to contraception is under discussion, it is essential that an opportunity is given to discuss access to education and the prevention of child marriage when appropriate. Distribution of contraceptives should be used as an opportunity to raise wide and broader issues directly focussing on the empowerment of women and girls.
Women need to be given the ability and the confidence to make informed decisions – and that means understanding that when decisions on contraception are described as “voluntary”, it is unlikely to be the reality unless they have the necessary information. That means properly taking into account the religious and cultural barriers which impose that overt discrimination which stands in the way of their freedom to choose.
There is indeed abundant evidence that such is the repression many women face that it is difficult for them to actually defend their rights, or indeed gain the self esteem and authority, which guarantees that they actually have control over their own choices.
We know now that the Rio + 20 Conference took us backwards on sexual and reproductive rights. Countries such as Russia, Egypt, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Syria and Chile spoke out against the one and only reference to reproductive rights in the document. When the Vatican intervened, the dye was cast and the section on reproductive rights was removed – and as aptly put by Mary Robinson; “ What do celibate men know about the decisions taken by poor women?”
Others, including the US led by Hilary Clinton, did argue for a strong position on rights as an essential element of efforts to achieve progress on sustainable development, gender equality and women’s empowerment.
It isn’t clear what the UK did or said as a member of the EU delegation, but what we do know is that pressure from certain member states ensured that the EU stayed silent.
The key will now be for the Family Planning Summit to insist that the role of women is centre stage in the process which will deliver the undoubted promise offered by the Gates initiative.
In addition when the funds are distributed through developing country budgets, the principles of non-discriminatory access to services are understood, and adhered to. It also means that women in their communities should be made responsible for the implementation of family planning programmes.
There are indeed country models which should be replicated elsewhere.
In Guyana, Columbia and Brazil reproductive rights are identified in health law and in Columbia there are clinics where legal advisers counsel women. In South Africa specific provisions on reproductive rights are included in the Constitution. In addition their Constitution, decisions concerning reproduction can include decisions related to family planning, pre-natal care, safe delivery and post-natal care, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion.
Gro Harlem Bruntland said at the end of the Rio Conference; “We can no longer afford this outrageous oversight driven by old fashioned tradition, discrimination and pure ignorance. Now is the time to stop all discrimination against women and girls.”
I trust that this warning will be heeded at the Family Planning Summit. It could be that because the strong language on reproductive rights was left out of the Rio text, more people than ever will now understand the need to stand up for those rights.
I, therefore, trust that the Gates Foundation and DFID will now take on the role of building stronger alliances across the World and that it is understood that women’s rights are not up for negotiation.