Celebrating Women and the Dignity of Family Planning

This week, I'm on a trip with two important stops: the Glamour Women of the Year Awards in New York City, then the International Family Planning Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I can appreciate how this ensemble might appear to clash -- the red carpet next to the green-brown fields dotting a country that's 80 percent rural. But sometimes juxtaposing seemingly incongruous things can reveal an underlying truth.

Personally speaking, it's an honor being named one of Glamour's women of the year. My kids are excited that I'll get to meet Lady Gaga. Me too, but I'm most looking forward to expressing my congratulations to all of the other honorees who are all working to create change in their own way.

Potentially more important than my opportunity to meet famous, inspiring people is that, from a professional point of view, being recognized by Glamour is a good sign. Part of my job involves traveling to developing countries and listening to women and girls tell their stories. Then I try to relay those stories to people who don't have the good fortune to hear them first hand. My hope is that these stories inspire businesspeople, philanthropists, politicians, community leaders, regular citizens (and, yes, fashion designers and their devotees) to join a global movement to give all seven billion of us an equal chance at a healthy, productive life.

It's encouraging that Glamour's readers are interested in brave women like Malala, who insist that their lives can be greater than society would have them believe. It's heartening that they are as inspired as I am by the stories of the women I meet. I believe that their compassion and curiosity is a leading indicator of a better future. Glamour appeals to young doers -- precisely the kind of women who can make a movement that changes the world.

Just a few hours after the awards, I'll be on my way to Ethiopia to attend the family planning conference, where 3,000 delegates are advancing that movement. They are gathering for three reasons:

  1. To get their message across: that when women have access to information about planning their families and the tools to space their births, they also have the power to get a better education and build a healthier future for themselves and their children.
  2. To celebrate progress since the landmark London Summit on Family Planning in 2012: namely, that today, seven countries in Africa have completed detailed family planning strategies with dollar figures attached and more than a dozen more are in the process of doing so.
  3. To convert their vision and these national strategies into results for women by raising money, securing government support, and doing the day-to-day hard work in communities around the world.

Ethiopia is one of my favorite places, because it proves that the world can get better -- a lot better, very quickly -- with the right kind of leadership. Ethiopia is poor but has a great health system (which means it won't be poor for long). In the past decade, the Ethiopian government has hired 30,000 community health workers who fan out around the country and reach every single Ethiopian with basic primary health care.

As a result, millions of children who used to die are now surviving and thriving. In 1990, one in five children in Ethiopia died before turning five. Now, that ratio is down to one in 15. (Since the average woman in 1990 had seven children, losing a child was typical, statistically speaking. Now, the average Ethiopian woman has four children, so three-quarters of families no longer experience this tragedy. That's a vast change in less than a generation.)

The flight from New York to Addis Ababa is long. When I board, I know that I will still be thinking about the many inspiring women that I shared the evening with. I'll try to get some sleep. When I wake up, I'll go straight to the conference to give a speech where I'll talk about the many examples of leadership I see in developing countries that are helping to improve the lives of girls and women every day. Ultimately, I'll be thinking about the single thread that runs through both days, despite the distance in miles.

It is this: Whether it's Glamour readers, family planning advocates, or the Ethiopian women I meet in villages, they all want the same thing, fundamentally. The dignity that comes with the power to make decisions about the future. The joy that comes with confidence in your children's chance at a good life. The contentment that comes with hope.

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