Family Planning Summit could mark turning point for maternal health

Family Planning Summit Could Mark Turning Point for Maternal Health

Executive Director talks about links between family planning and maternal health

More than 200 million women, largely in the least developed countries, want to use modern family planning methods but can’t access them. They may face cultural barriers or family resistance. Contraceptives may not be available in their communities or they may not have the money to buy them, or there is a lack of information or trained workers to give advice. The result is human misery on a huge scale – and a major brake on our development hopes.

Next month in London an initiative will be launched to meet this unfilled need for modern family planning in developing countries by tackling the estimated $3.6bn (£2.3bn) annual shortfall in investment (pdf). The family planning summit is being co-hosted by the UK government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is supporting the initiative so that it can gain traction and support among other donors and UN member countries.

Having spearheaded the fight to extend voluntary family planning to all who want it, we at UNFPA are excited by the potential of this initiative. The summit’s aim is to mobilise the political will and extra resources needed to give 120 million more women access to family planning by 2020.

It is an ambitious target but one that is desperately needed. The inability of women to control the number and spacing of their children is one of the main reasons why reducing maternal deaths remains the millennium development goal we are furthest from achieving. Hundreds of thousands of women continue to die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Without new urgency and impetus, many developing countries will not only fail to meet the MDG target to reduce maternal mortality by 75% by 2015 but for decades to come. This would be a betrayal of the most vulnerable people and communities on our planet and an affront to our sense of justice.

The impact of the poverty and despair resulting from this failure will also undermine our wider hopes for peace and prosperity, and be felt far beyond these communities. This is why we have both a moral obligation and vested interest in tackling the death toll of mothers and their babies.

But these tragedies are just the tip of the iceberg. For every mother who dies, 20 more suffer from chronic ill health and disability. Uncontrolled pregnancy has a much wider impact on the life chances of women and their children – and the health and strength of their communities.

Of course, a wide range of reasons are behind this loss of life and potential. But the lack of access to family planning is both a major and avoidable cause.

It is a failure we have been working hard at UNFPA to remedy. For more than 40 years, we have combined global advocacy on family planning with funding support and practical help to governments. Through our programme for reproductive health commodity security, we have channelled $450m over the past five years to improve their family planning capacity.

We don’t just fund contraceptive supplies in countries but work with governments to put in place programmes on the ground that deliver services to women and girls. This has enabled us to forge strong relationships with both national governments and local communities.

Through our network in more than 150 countries and hundreds of expert staff working locally, we have plenty of experience of adapting to local circumstances. This has been vital in building the trust and partnerships needed to deliver more effectively.

But while we are proud of what we have achieved, we are determined to do even better. We have accepted that this is an area where we need to devote more resources and put in place the right measures and monitoring to ensure they deliver the best possible results.

UNFPA already spends about 25% of its entire programme resources to help governments buy family planning supplies and improve services. But by reshaping our priorities and programmes, we plan to increase our programme spending to about 40%. This will allow us to step up our role, with our partners, to widen and improve access to high-quality family planning services across the world.

Through our collective efforts with the UK government and the Gates Foundation next month, there is a real chance this ambition will become much closer. The extra resources will fund new information campaigns, the supply of modern contraceptives and setting up new systems and trained staff to provide these services to the women who need them.

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