OPINION: Reproductive health, rights and choices: A vision created 25 years ago is more urgent than ever

by Bjorn Andersson | UNFPA
Thursday, 26 September 2019 09:00 GMT

Hannah Gumaro after her contraceptive implant insertion. Image: Mario Villamor / UNFPA Philippines

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We urge governments to invest all the more in sexual and reproductive health under the umbrella of universal health coverage

Bjorn Andersson is the United Nations Population Fund’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Hannah Gumaro gathered with around 50 other young, mostly indigenous women at a community centre in Kalabaza village, in the Philippine province of Isabela. Many of them had walked from far-flung communities to learn about – and gain access to – family planning. The mother of two and her husband, a construction worker, were not financially ready for another child. After reviewing the various types of methods available through a government-run programme, 23-year-old Hannah chose to receive a long-lasting contraceptive implant.

Hannah belongs to a new generation of women across Asia-Pacific making active choices about the timing of their pregnancies. Increasingly, they can access a wide range of modern contraceptives, as well as information to help decide which method is best for them.

They are benefitting from a women's empowerment movement galvanized 25 years ago through the Programme of Action that emerged from the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. For the first time ever, 179 governments unanimously placed individual rights and choices – with an emphasis on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights – at the heart of sustainable development, underpinned by gender equality as well as the broader agenda of human rights. 

Access to modern contraception, a key component of rights-based family planning, has revolutionised the lives of millions, contributing to better health, greater economic empowerment and the prosperity of entire nations.

Yet, significant challenges remain.

Globally, more than 214 million women who wish to access modern contraceptives cannot, the majority of them in developing nations.

This unmet need for family planning is linked as well to preventable maternal deaths; more than 300,000 women die of complications from pregnancy or childbirth each year, some 85,000 of them in our region alone.

Lower fertility, linked to population ageing, is triggering pro-natalist policies in some countries, with policymakers speaking out against family planning and encouraging women to have more children instead.

Patriarchy and rising conservatism in our region – reflecting a global trend - further contribute to a range of harms against women and girls, including child marriage and gender-based violence.

It’s clear that although we have been making progress under the ICPD Programme of Action, we can’t take this for granted.

The world of today is very different from that of 1994. We are seeing significant pushback on women’s rights and choices, impacting essential health services including family planning and contraception, even in countries that have long been champions.

Against this backdrop, and on this World Contraception Day, we urge governments to build on the gains under ICPD by investing all the more in sexual and reproductive health under the umbrella of universal health coverage.

It means greater national ownership of family planning programmes by governments, through adequate budgetary allocations and availability of trained staff for long-term sustainability.

It means expanding choices by introducing newer methods of contraception and strengthening national capacities for supply chain management to ensure products are consistently available.

It means removing policy, legal and economic barriers to accessing modern contraceptives and comprehensive sexuality education – including for specific population groups.

It means encouraging investments by the private sector in offering contraceptive choices to their workforce, especially women.

These steps will feed into wider efforts to accelerate the ICPD movement, as we call on governments, civil society, communities and people from all walks of life to be bold and courageous, to do what’s right for women and girls everywhere.

We must reach out to a new generation of political leaders, civil society and community leaders – forging a coalition of those who are already ICPD champions, as well as reaching out to those that remain to be convinced, using high-quality data to help identify gaps and needs.

In an interconnected world where society, culture and politics are being transformed by the power of social media – where greater calls for democracy are often being met with ever greater pushback – it’s imperative that the rights and choices spelt out under ICPD are advocated for more than ever.

Ultimately, as the story of Hannah and millions of other women demonstrate, without achieving the vision of ICPD, we quite simply won’t achieve the vision of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals – that of leaving no one behind.