Supporting Mothers Is Sound Foreign Policy


Cross-posted from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation blog.

Last week, the Council of Foreign Relations, a bipartisan group of the country’s foreign policy luminaries, released a report (PDF) that showcases the powerful roles that mothers play, not only in their homes and communities, but also in the health and productivity of nations and in global geopolitical stability.

The report, Family Planning and U.S. Foreign Policy: Ensuring U.S. Leadership for Healthy Families and Communities and Prosperous, Stable Societies, argues that:

“Women today are recognized as critical to reducing poverty, boosting economic growth and agricultural productivity, promoting environmental sustainability, and raising healthy and well-educated children – steps that are imperative to confronting a range of pressing foreign policy challenges around the globe.”

The report also notes that “strengthened U.S. leadership can continue to empower strong and secure families around the globe and simultaneously advance U.S. foreign policy aims.”

How? It recommends prioritizing family planning in U.S. foreign policy as well as increased U.S. family planning funding. Family planning access is crucial to ensuring healthy, thriving mothers and families. When a mother has the means to plan the number and spacing of her children, she can also plan and enhance many other aspects of her and her family’s life.

As the report maintains:

“complications from induced abortions account for approximately 13 percent of maternal deaths…; (with) increased access to family planning, the number of induced abortions in the developing world would decline by 70 percent.”

Reducing newborn and childhood mortality is another reason to prioritize family planning, according to the report.

“Forty percent of all child deaths under the age of five are newborn deaths. When a mother dies, her surviving newborn’s risk of death increases by 70 percent.”

And high infant mortality is a top predictor of a failed state. On the other hand, when a mother exclusively breastfeeds a newborn for the first six months of life, she gives that baby her first immunization against infection, provides her with vital nutrition, increases birth spacing through delayed return to fertility and gives her greater odds of surviving and living a productive life.

Mothers, more than any other frontline health caregiver, stand out as the most critical producers of health for their families and the first line of defense against disease. Additionally, studies show that when given control of the family purse-strings, mothers spend more than fathers on products for family health, education, and well-being.

Given the current budget debates in the U.S. Congress, potential cost savings are significant. The report, in fact, outlines the savings from ensuring family planning access:

“Research has shown that fulfilling today’s unmet need for modern family planning would cost an incremental $3.6 billion. However, this investment would decrease the cost of providing maternal and newborn health services by $5.1 billion, because roughly 50 million fewer women would become pregnant unintentionally. The result would be a net total savings of $1.5 billion.”

In other words, as this report makes clear, when mothers around the world are supported – by ensuring they have access to family planning – families, communities, and nations flourish.

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