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Empowering women with contraception and knowledge


Dr Natalia Kanem

Executive Director, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Family planning is preventing the tragedy of girls and women dying in pregnancy and childbirth and transforming lives in developing countries.

Dr Natalia Kanem, a passionate champion of women and girls, understands the link between family planning and maternal health.

As United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), she cites the shocking fact that some 830 women die every day from pregnancy or childbirth complications. That’s more than 300,000 deaths each year.

However, there is positive news. The dedicated work of UNFPA is making a dramatic difference in reducing unintended pregnancies and pregnancy/childbirth related death and injuries.

Dr Kanem states emphatically: “Family planning saves lives.”

Over the last 15 years, the dynamic organisation, headquartered in New York, with offices in more than 150 countries, has succeeded in helping reduce maternal death by more than 40%.

She elaborates: “For the first time in history, more than 670 million women and girls in developing countries are able to use modern contraception. More than 300 million unintended pregnancies are now averted every year.”

However, there is much work to do. Far too many women continue to die due to preventable and treatable complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

She explains that UNFPA’s reproductive health services in developing countries include providing access to voluntary family planning and pre-natal care.

At the heart of these services is the personal relationship and guidance provided by local midwives, nurses and doctors who understand the culture.

Dr Kanem is enthusiastic about this effective grassroots strategy. “Midwives save lives. Counselling on available methods of contraception helps a woman make informed choices, avoid unintended pregnancies and space when she has her children. And, when she decides to become pregnant, she already has a relationship with someone who cares and who can guide her through childbirth and postnatal support.”

UNFPA provides 40% of all contraception in developing countries, including the contraceptive pill, hormone implants, condoms, IUDs and other devices, recognising women’s different needs and preferences and respecting and upholding their right to decide freely whether or when to bear children.

The future belongs to a 10-year-old girl

Dr Kanem explains that when the UN set the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the UNFPA was thinking about the 10-year old girl who will be 25 in 2030.

“How do you empower a 10-year-old girl who is impacted by so many global issues? Guess who has to walk further to collect water because of climate change? Guess who is missing school to look after younger children?

In some societies she will be eligible for marriage at 14. And she will have undergone female genital mutilation. 

“Many girls get pregnant without even understanding sex. And then they get blamed and shamed and kicked out of school.

“We have a responsibility to give proper information to adolescent girls, so they can grow into their womanhood and avoid unintended pregnancies.

“When girls are informed about their bodies, they are better able to avoid teenage pregnancy, stay in school and find better jobs. This can break the cycle of poverty and improve livelihoods and opportunities for successive generations.”

Dr Kanem, who has seen the transformational results, says: “Family planning empowers girls and women to seek and keep better jobs. No one should lose their livelihood because of unintended pregnancy.”

“Giving her choices raises hope for prosperity. A woman should be able to aspire to be the mayor of her town or president of her country.”

Family planning can achieve change for all

While UNFPA has made phenomenal progress, there are still 214 million women and girls in developing countries waiting to access modern contraception and life-changing information.

Dr Kanem spells it out: “Our purpose is to advance the right of every individual and couple; men, women, boys and girls to responsibly look after their reproductive and sexual health and have a happy, healthy sexuality. Information and education is part of that human right.”

She explains that innovation and partnership are at the heart of UNFPA’s efforts.

“One of our projects is to provide menstrual supplies that are sustainable and eco-friendly to take away the embarrassment around what is a lovely part of growing up but can stop girls from going to school at that time of the month.

“International solidarity with women helping women across countries and cultures is the key to success. The financial support of our donors in the UK makes a huge difference.

“Every pregnancy should be intended, and every childbirth should be safe. The thought of 830 families grieving every single day is unbearable and unacceptable.”

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