Population Matters

The Future Women Want

July 5th, 2012

Two weeks ago, world leaders at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil released a consensus statement titled, “The Future We Want.” For the most part, it’s an ambitious, forward looking document, but when it came to women and reproductive health it’s not altogether what women want.

Despite the strong appeals of the reproductive rights community, the final Rio document stopped short of embracing reproductive rights:  “We are committed to promote equal access of women and girls to education, basic services, economic opportunities and health care services, including addressing women’s sexual and reproductive health.”  In adopting this language, the drafters declined to “ensure” access to reproductive health services and omitted any reference to “reproductive rights.”

With considerable justification, many women’s rights’ proponents and political leaders have cited the document as a step backwards. If that is the case, where do we go from here? How do we ensure that women everywhere are able to determine freely how many children they will bear and when?  What more can we do to ensure that the sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents are addressed?

After the Commission on Population and Development (CPD) at the United Nations in May, reproductive rights’ proponents expected more from Rio. CPD adopted a strong resolution this year in support of the sexual and reproductive health and human rights of youth and adolescents. The momentum we gained at this year’s CPD session, however, came to an abrupt halt at Rio.

As countries work to achieve sustainable growth, their leaders should acknowledge the central role that reproductive rights should play in achieving sustainable development.  One cannot happen without the other. As Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, CEO of the Global Fund for Women, argued, “Population growth weakens our development systems, and is not going to help women or developing nations. We need to address population growth from the perspective of empowerment of women.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed that sentiment in her remarks at Rio. Women’s empowerment is a prerequisite for any real change, and access to family planning represents one of its key components.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 222 million women worldwide have an unmet need for contraception today. 50% of pregnancies are unplanned and 25% are unwanted. By supporting reproductive rights and working to ensure universal access to maternal care and reproductive health services, we can prevent unintended pregnancies and save lives at the same time. Doing so would promote both healthy families and a healthy planet.

Having this type of care available is essential to better health outcomes for women and their full economic participation. Women should not be marginalized any longer. As Michelle Bachelet, the Executive Director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), recently said. “The future women want is free from poverty and discrimination, with equal access to opportunities and leadership.” Those opportunities ought to include reproductive healthcare. While the Rio statement may not have fully acknowledged the future that women want, it does not mean we have to accept either defeat or their limited vision of reproductive health and rights.

Hopes for improved reproductive rights across the globe now lie with the upcoming Family Planning Summit in London, which will take place on July 11. Co-hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), it will address the increased need and demand for modern contraception and family planning services. The Summit’s goal is to raise enough in new commitments to provide an additional 120 million women with contraceptives, information, and services by 2020.

World leaders must not waste another opportunity at the London Family Planning Summit. It is crucial for the United States to step up and join those who are fighting for reproductive rights.

Rio+20 aimed to develop a blueprint for “the future we want,” but do we want a world in which women’s rights are neglected? Women everywhere must make their voices heard if they are going to attain the rights they need and deserve.

Posted by Lucy Dicks-Mireaux, Public Policy Fellow

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