Want to Fight Hunger? Empower Women and Prioritize Family Planning

Ironically, family planning isn't seen as a sexy issue. And it wrongly gets mired in debates around abortion -- even though family planning reduces abortions.
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Have you seen the ads? They seem to be everywhere -- from the Washington Metro system's billboards, to the New Yorker and Roll Call.

While focused on biotechnology, the ad (sponsored by Monsanto) does point to a key challenge in the years ahead: namely, the need to double agricultural output by 2050 to feed a rapidly growing world.

One billion people -- the equivalent of three times the population of the United States -- already are chronically hungry in the world today. And despite all the pledged commitments and efforts to eradicate hunger, that number is 100 million people higher than in the early 1990s.

Unfortunately, the problem of hunger is likely to get worse in the years ahead as global demand for food skyrockets. Meeting that demand will be daunting enough, but add in the shifts in weather patterns that are beginning to occur because of climate change -- on top of already decreasing cropland and freshwater -- and there's reason to be very concerned.

In recognition of the need for bold action, President Obama recently announced his intent to double U.S. funding for agricultural development. It's a long overdue commitment to investing U.S. resources to combat chronic hunger in a more comprehensive and effective way. By most accounts, the primary hunger assistance the U.S. has provided over the last several decades -- emergency food aid -- has done little to fundamentally address the problem.

But there's another, seemingly unrelated type of assistance that can play a major role in the fight to eradicate hunger: family planning programs and other initiatives that empower women.

A major driver of the need to double food production in the next forty years is population growth: we're currently increasing by 80 million people per year. And one of the primary causes of this growth is high unintended pregnancy rates resulting from lack of access and low usage of family planning in many poor countries.

Just look at Ethiopia. Of the country's current 80 million people, an estimated 35 million Ethiopians are undernourished. More than half of children under age five are stunted. A third of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Ethiopian women, on average, give birth to five or six children -- more than many of them desire, because 35 percent of women have an "unmet need" for family planning.

Ethiopia's population of 80 million people -- double what it was at the time of the horrendous famine in the mid-1980's -- is projected to increase to 120 million in just the next 15 years. And that's the "optimistic" scenario. According to new data from the U.N., if birth rates remain at their current high levels -- if access to family planning does not improve -- the population will jump to 132 million by 2025.

No realistic amount of food aid or agricultural development assistance will truly combat hunger in Ethiopia unless the underlying demographic realities -- and the very interrelated poor status of women -- are also addressed. Ethiopia received $700 million in emergency food aid from the U.S. just between 2003 and 2007; last year, the Bush Administration requested a mere $15 million for family planning there.

The situation in Ethiopia is far from unique. Nearly 60 percent of Haiti grapples with hunger every day and almost a quarter of children under age five are stunted in growth. Haiti's population of nearly 10 million is projected to jump to 15 million by 2030 if birth rates stay where they are today. With little access to contraceptives, Haitian women give birth to an average of four children. 40% of married women have an unmet need for family planning.

In the past, policymakers have generally turned a blind eye to the demographic part of the hunger problem -- much the same way they largely turn a blind eye to the more than 500,000 mothers in poor nations who die every year during pregnancy and childbirth from easily preventable causes. For example, since 1995, U.S. international family planning assistance has declined by 35%, even as demand has increased.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that one thing both these issues have in common is the shockingly poor and unjust status of women in many of the world's poorest areas: lack of access to family planning, little (if any) education, few legal rights, and limited economic empowerment. (I've visited Ethiopia twice and have seen first-hand how women are treated.) But we all know where these issues rank on most politicians' agendas.

I think it comes down to this: ironically, family planning isn't seen as a sexy issue. It's not an issue that many policymakers -- here in the U.S. and in the affected countries themselves -- feel merits much attention. It's not covered much by the media. And it wrongly gets mired in debates around abortion -- even though family planning reduces abortions.

So back to that Monsanto ad: "9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT?"

I say -- and hopefully the Obama Administration will say -- family planning and empowering women, that's what!

Tod Preston is Vice President for U.S. Government Relations at Population Action International (PAI). Preston leads PAI's advocacy and outreach activities to U.S. policymakers and opinion-leaders, including Members of Congress and officials in the Executive branch.

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