As global headwinds for growth and global development gather strength, an unexpected force is emerging with the power to reignite momentum on both fronts right across the African continent.

That force is family planning: ensuring the rights of women and girls everywhere to decide – freely and for themselves – whether, when and how many children they want to have.

Ironically, as political pushback against family planning and women’s rights has accelerated in some countries, this force – along with the dedicated efforts of the global family planning sector – is shining a new light on the power of rights-based family planning. 

That power was recognized clearly when countries around the world signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.  SDGs 3 and 5 enshrined family planning and women’s health as a key global priority.  However, for the most part, the global discussion around family planning has taken place in the health arena.

Evidence shows that family planning is essential to lower maternal and infant mortality.  Although both have decreased in the past decades, still today over 300,000 women and girls die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications, including unsafe abortions. If all women and girls with an unmet need for family planning were able to use the contraceptive of their choice, 29% of maternal deaths would be prevented.

However, the global discussion around family planning is now entering vital new arenas beyond health.  This is potentially a watershed moment for policy-makers, particularly those looking for elusive new sources of economic growth.

A groundbreaking new report released today shows how accelerated rights-based family planning programs can deliver a vast ‘demographic dividend’ that can help transform economies.

The democratic dividend is the burst of growth that can follow when birth rates drop and the ratio of adults to dependent children increases.  With fewer dependents to support, a country can invest more in education, infrastructure and other productivity-enhancing measures.

Crucially, family planning empowers women, and empowered women are economic dynamos: joining the labour force, starting their own businesses, and investing in their communities.  This sparks a ripple effect that generates vast benefits across society, driving productivity, prosperity, and sustainability.

Remarkably, if women were able to participate in the economy at the same level as men, it would add some $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

But the demographic dividend won’t happen automatically. Countries need to make the right investments in health, education, and jobs, of course. But most importantly, countries must invest in rights-based family planning.

To this end, a global partnership – Family Planning 2020 – was established in 2012 to bring rights-based family planning to millions of girls and women. In the partnership, FP2020 countries set the agenda for progress with their commitments to develop, support, and strengthen their family planning programs. FP2020 links countries with a global network of partners to develop programs that are grounded in human rights, informed by best practices, funded through sustainable financing streams, and integrated with the countries’ wider overall development strategies.

The good news is more countries are empowering women to take control of their futures – and the futures of their families, communities, and countries. 

Today’s new report from Family Planning 2020 – FP2020: Catalyzing Collaborations – shows more women and adolescent girls than ever before are making the voluntary choice to use family planning in their everyday lives. The number of women and girls using a modern method of contraception in the world’s 69 lowest income countries has jumped 30% since 2012.

Encouragingly, the report shows the use of contraception is growing fastest in Africa, with 24% of women of reproductive age now using modern contraception methods.  The increase in the use of modern contraception has been greatest in Eastern and Southern Africa where 63% of demand for modern contraception was met in 2018, up from 54% in 2012. In Central Africa, 27% of demand was met in 2018, up from 21% in 2012. In Western Africa, 38% of demand was met in 2018, up from 32% in 2012.

As a result of the increase in modern contraception use, more than 119 million unintended pregnancies were prevented, 20 million unsafe abortions were avoided and 137,000 maternal deaths were averted in the 12 months from July 2017 to July 2018 across the 69 countries studied.

After two years of declines, global donor funding for family planning is on the upswing, with a 6% increase since 2016. Bilateral donations in 2017 were led by the U.S. at 39% of total bilateral funding, followed by the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden. For the first time, we also now know more about how countries are funding their own programs, which we expect will grow year on year.

While progress has been impressive, there remains far more work to do to unleash the full potential of family planning and therefore increase economic productivity.  Collaboration across sectors will be vital.  For example, today’s report shows innovative new partnerships with communities of faith where leaders in many parts of the world exert significant social influence, and discussions on sensitive cultural topics often take place.

Even so, governments around the world – including here in the U.S. – must lead from the front.  But they can do so with confidence, knowing that if they step up their family planning policies and programs to meet the needs of everyone, no matter where they live, they can turbocharge development, save lives, empower women and girls, and help spark a new wave of economic growth.  It’s hard to argue against planning for that.

Op-ed Written by Beth Schlachter, the Executive Director, FP2020.

FP2020 is a global partnership to empower women and girls by investing in rights-based family planning.

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