Women’s Lives Are Worth Saving


On December 10, the world observed the International Human Rights Day. UNFPA was at the forefront calling for justice and dignity for all.

For me what resonated was the fact that girls and women continue to be subjected to unacceptable and appalling levels of discrimination and violence. But the worst violence of all is when a woman who wants to either stop or space childbearing cannot do so because of lack of contraception.

Being at the Africa population conference, I have been confronted by a lot of facts and figures around the contraceptive prevalence rates of the different countries in Africa and I am now more convinced than ever that access to family planning methods is a human right that African women have been denied for so long.

An Ethiopian woman with no education, for example, has 6.1 children on average, but an Ethiopian woman with secondary or higher education has 2.1 children. In developing countries, one in six married women faces an "unmet need" for family planning. I know this is not news but I also know that not much has changed in terms of government or donor commitment to shift this unmet need and reduce the burden of childbearing for the women who want to stop.

Next year leads us to the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every human being should be able to live and make decisions free of coercion, discrimination and violence. The world has long recognized, for instance, that all couples and individuals have a right to decide whether and when to have children. Yet today an estimated 200 million women worldwide lack access to modern contraception. The world has also long recognized the right to health. Yet today one woman dies every minute during pregnancy and childbirth for lack of maternal health services.

The same predicament confronts young people who face unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection but lack the information and means to protect themselves. According to surveys completed in developing countries in 1999 and 2000, women who said they did not want to become pregnant cited various reasons for not using contraception. They included but are not limited to opposition to family planning, by the family especially husbands; problems with contraceptive methods, including side effects and health concerns; and, to a lesser extent, cost and access. It does not require a genius to note that reducing an unmet need will help reduce unintended pregnancies — which lead to abortions and unwanted births.

I am happy on one note though: the Ethiopian government is going to focus on providing family planning services to 8.5 million women across the country during the next Ethiopian year. For this purpose, the ministry said it plans to train 600 health professionals, who will then train nurses currently working at health facilities.The ministry is set to revise and distribute family planning guidelines among regional states, partner organizations and educational institutions. In addition, the ministry plans to provide services aimed at preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission at more than 600 health stations and 126 hospitals, he said. The plan seeks to ensure that Ethiopia meets the health-related targets of the Millennium Development Goals.

While this is all good, I am praying that they will also be informing women of the benefits and possible side effects so that they can choose the birth control method most appropriate for them; informing women of their chances of becoming pregnant after using forms of birth control, after abortion or childbirth, during breastfeeding, or when approaching menopause, and counseling them on family planning methods that might be appropriate for them.

As we work towards access to contraceptives let's not forget the men when it comes to family planning. There are many countries where women have to walk long distances to reach a facility that provides family planning and when they get there, the contraceptive method they need is often no longer in stock.

Its funny that politicians are still asking whether we still need family planning. For me access means the degree to which family planning services can be obtained devoid of socio-cultural, geographic, financial and health care system barriers.

The politicians too need to remember that budget lines should be put in place to cater for contraceptives and reduce the donor reliance in support of the same. This is because what is at stake is for every 109 births there is one woman dead. If we only provided family planning we could reduce these deaths by 20-35%, because women and girls have a right to live.

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