By Emma Batha
LONDON, July 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - C ontraceptives are "one of the greatest anti-poverty innovations the world has ever known", philanthropist Melinda Gates said on Tuesday, calling for family planning to be made a global priority.
Access to birth control boosts economic productivity by freeing up women to work, and leads to smaller families with parents able to devote more resources to their children's health and education, Gates told an international summit in London on family planning.
Financial commitments announced at the conference were expected to total at least $2.5 billion - of which $1.5 billion has been pledged by countries in Africa and Asia.
"Contraceptives empower women. And we know what empowered women do ... they transform societies," Gates said.
She announced the foundation would provide an additional $375 million for family planning over the next four years.
The summit comes at a critical time, with U.S. President Donald Trump having said he will end funding to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the U.N. agency which deals with family planning, sexual and reproductive health.
The Trump administration has also reinstated a policy blocking U.S. funding to overseas groups that perform or provide information about abortion.
Gates said she was "deeply troubled" by the proposed cuts.
"If empowering women is more than just rhetoric for the president, he will prove it by funding family planning," she added.
Gates, who is married to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, said contraception allowed her to finish her education, pursue a career in technology and plan when she had her children.
"My family, my career, my life as I know it are because I had access to ... contraceptives," she said.
But many women around the world were getting pregnant "too young, too old and too often".
"When I went to Malawi, everyone told me they knew a woman who had died in pregnancy," she said.
"I sat in a circle of women in India and asked if anyone had lost a child. Every single hand went up."
Some 214 million women and girls in developing countries cannot get access to contraceptives, experts say.
They estimate that meeting that need could help avert 67 million unintended pregnancies a year, thereby preventing the deaths of 76,000 women from pregnancy and childbirth related complications, as well as cutting stillbirths and newborn deaths.
Experts say universal access to reproductive health services would also lead to economic benefits of more than $430 billion a year.
"At the individual level, contraceptives make lives better. In the aggregate, they transform economies," Gates said.
Priti Patel, Britain's minister for international development, described family planning as "one of the smartest and savviest tools" for poverty reduction.
"We cannot tackle the scourge of poverty unless we get on top of this issue," she added.
Patel announced Britain would boost funding for family planning in developing countries to 225 million pounds ($289 million) a year until 2022 - an increase of 25 percent.
The new head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, promised to "personally champion the issue of sexual and reproductive rights as a top priority".
The summit, held on World Population Day, focused on ramping up access to contraceptives for adolescents, boosting family planning services in humanitarian crises and improving the supply and range of contraceptives available.
It comes five years after activists, philanthropists and leaders gathered at an earlier summit and set a goal to empower 120 million additional women and girls in the 69 least developed countries to use modern contraception by 2020.
The number has only grown by 30 million since then, meaning the target will be missed unless efforts are accelerated, organisers said. (Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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