A Summit for the World's Women

The evidence is clear: Family planning improves health, empowers women, and helps reduce poverty. Contraceptive services are one of the best investments a country can make in its future.
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Wednesday, world leaders, international and national policymakers, donors, and nongovernmental organizations will gather for the London Summit on Family Planning -- a highly anticipated gathering aimed at providing an additional 120 million women in the world's poorest countries with lifesaving contraceptives, information, and services by 2020.

The Summit's goal is to increase the attention and priority that governments and key global health and development institutions give to family planning. The argument is straightforward: Family planning saves lives and protects women and children's health. Today, some 220 million women in the developing world do not want to get pregnant but are not using an effective method of contraception. If we could address this unmet need, we could avert an estimated 54 million unintended pregnancies, 26 million abortions, more than 79,000 maternal deaths, and 1.1 million infant deaths each year.

The summit's organizers -- the UK government and the Gates Foundation -- not only want to change national and global policies, but also obtain commitments from Summit attendees that they will support this international effort.

Getting national and world leaders to deliver on their promises will be a feat in itself. But it's not enough to commit to increasing access -- we need to go farther. To be truly successful, the Summit must focus on specifics -- reaching the women who are most in need, increasing access to the most effective methods, and addressing barriers to contraceptive use that are often overlooked.

This means publicly acknowledging that women's rights, choice, and equity must be paramount. The Summit will have a positive impact if it gets governments and private sector organizations to commit to ensuring that all women have the choice of a range of contraceptive methods, and the poorest women have the same access to high quality reproductive health information and services as better off women.

It also means that special attention should be paid to ensuring access to affordable and highly effective, long-acting reversible methods. It's not enough to give out more pills or condoms. We need to make sure women can choose and providers can offer long-lasting methods like Paragard, the CopperT380A IUD, or the intrauterine system Mirena, and subdermal implants such as Jadelle and Implanon. These methods -- many of which were developed by the Population Council -- are preferred by many women, have many health benefits, and typically cost less per month than less effective methods. Yet today they are often difficult to obtain in developing countries, where they could do the most to improve women's health.

Recently, an international gathering of women's health experts released recommendations for increasing access to these long-acting reversible contraceptives, including ensuring a comprehensive range of method options for women, guaranteeing availability and access across health systems and markets, and engaging professional societies and training providers on removal and insertion. They have called for the recommendations to form part of the analysis and discussion at the Summit, and that access to long-acting methods be part of the broader strategy for improving women's health and options.

Lastly, for women to be able to fully exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, we must do more than increase method choice or guarantee better services. Women need family planning, but we also need to move beyond family planning to ensure women can make decisions about childbearing free from undue the pressure from families, communities, the church, government, and medical establishment. A recently completed project in Pakistan shows this is possible even in the most conservative areas.

As one NGO attending the Summit, the Population Council is committing to advance women's health through our efforts to expand access to family planning information and services, promote reproductive rights to reduce inequalities in health service access related to wealth, age, and gender, strengthen health systems in developing countries, and develop new reproductive health and contraceptive technologies.

The excitement leading up to the London Summit has already provided a welcome focus on the multifaceted importance of family planning. The evidence is clear: Family planning improves health, empowers women, and helps reduce poverty. Contraceptive services are one of the best investments a country can make in its future. It's up to all of us -- at the Summit and beyond - to act on this evidence, commit to delivering on our promises, and save women's lives.

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