The rights way forward for international family planning programmes

by Elizabeth Schlachter and Poonam Muttreja
Thursday, 11 December 2014 15:32 GMT

Filipino mothers with their newborn babies wait for their checkup inside the maternity ward of government hospital Jose Fabella in Manila May 9, 2014. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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Why family planning programmes must have human rights as their anchor and guiding light

Sadly, it often takes a heartbreaking human tragedy, such as the recent sterilization deaths of more than a dozen women in India, to remind us of a principle that simply cannot be emphasized enough: each and every family planning programme must have human rights as its anchor and guiding light. Every woman, regardless of her socio-economic status and where she lives, should have the right to access high quality medical care and a method of contraception that she wants and accepts voluntarily. But for hundreds of millions of women and girls around the world— reality falls far short of the ideal.

Without access to modern methods of contraception, women are often consigned to a cycle of repeat pregnancies which have a debilitating effect on their health over time. Many resort to unsafe abortion, which costs thousands of lives annually. Young girls fall pregnant before their bodies can cope physically, placing their lives at risk; and early motherhood also prevents many girls from accessing education, which puts them and their families on the path to a life of poverty and deprivation.

That is why our hope is that by the end of this decade, Family Planning 2020 (FP2020), a global partnership established after the ground-breaking London Summit on Family Planning in 2012, which is dedicated to improving access to voluntary family planning information and services, will have brought modern contraception within reach of an additional 120 million women and girls.

Those of us who work in family planning understand very well that quotas and targets are anathema to any rights-based programme. So let us be clear: reaching 120 million women and girls with voluntary access to contraception is not a quota and it is by no means a target. The numeric goal is a benchmark of progress, but it is surpassed in importance by the narrative we aspire to shape. Family planning is ultimately about making sure that every woman and every girl has the right, and the means, to take charge of her own life—to grow, to thrive, and to plan the family she wants.

For the past year, FP2020 has been working with global partners to develop the Rights and Empowerment Principles for Family Planning. Informed by human rights principles, the Statement proposes illustrative examples for how to operationalize rights in the areas of policy and programming, measurement and markets. These principles are important to ensure that all family planning programmes, from global initiatives to community-based projects, keep human rights and the dignity and empowerment of women and girls at their very core. 

Rights-based family planning programmes require a standard of medical care. For some, this will involve re-imagining the approach to family planning - by treating contraception as part of an individual’s decision and overall health care. A woman who wants to delay or prevent pregnancy shouldbe able to choose freely from a variety of contraceptive methods—pills, IUDs, implants, injectables, condoms and other options—so she can make a decision about what fits best with her current life stage and reproductive plans. Equally important is the premise that she receive care from medical personnel that are qualified and trained to provide family planning counsel, supplies and services.

Every country committed to working with FP2020 commits itself to embracing a rights-based approach to serve its citizens. But intentions, no matter how good, simply aren’t enough. Putting human rights at the centre—and making sure they stay there—must be a collective public effort. We need everyone involved and on the same page: government officials, healthcare workers, civil society advocates and the private sector. Rights violations must be brought to light and addressed whenever and wherever they occur. Open discussions must be held so we can understand how and why violations take place, and more importantly, how they can be prevented. Programmes must be specifically designed and implemented to respect, protect, fulfil and advance rights.

There is an urgent need for constructive dialogue to establish a future where all women and girls have the freedom to decide for themselves whether and when to have children. The news is promising on this front - our partners have made significant progress in ensuring women’s rights remain at the centre of family planning programmes. The three newest country governments that have so far pledged to achieve FP2020’s vision – Burundi, Cameroon and Togo – have all embraced the rights based approach to family planning and will frame the development and implementation of their strategic plans using these principles, putting women and girls’ rights at the heart of their service delivery models.

On Human Rights Day this week, and over the course of the days ahead, we shall celebrate the achievements of partners throughout the world in advancing women's and girls' rights and empowerment through expanding access to family planning. It is the work of governments, donors, civil society and advocates that has brought the advances we have seen in the past years. Our work is far from over, but we have seen the ways that collaboration and commitment can make a difference for individual women and girls. And today we also celebrate the women and girls who are the heart of our movement: not as targets, but as partners, and as the most important agents of change in their lives and their communities. 

Elizabeth Schlachter is director of Family Planning 2020 and Poonam Muttreja is executive director, Population Foundation of India and FP2020 reference group member