The British Government unveiled a new programme today to provide contraceptive services to millions of women and girls in some of the poorest countries in the world.
And the Government’s approach announced today by International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell was welcomed by Christian Aid.
The charity said the commitment to fund the provision of wider information and education in poorer countries to enable women to make effective choices about when they have children was particularly important.
“We know from our experience that in practice it is not just a matter of women having access to family planning,” said Christian Aid policy director Christine Allen. “It is also about addressing the wider social and family pressures that can reduce a woman’s ability to choose when to have children.
“That this initiative includes a commitment to education and information shows a more holistic response that takes on board cultures, attitudes and values rather than a solely mechanistic approach.
As a faith-based organisation we know that family planning is a sensitive issue, but empowering women to plan their children is an important means of valuing and protecting human life.”
Other faith groups are likely to respond cautiously to the new development as one of the main beneficiaries will be the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The provision of abortions will be particularly sensitive.
But Christian Aid added: “As the government today acknowledges, it will lead to fewer deaths in both child-bearing women and children in infancy.
“Adequate child spacing and smaller overall family size enables families to invest more in each child in terms of nutrition, education and other resources, as well as increasing women’s productivity as contributors to household wealth, and improving the family’s resilience and ability to respond to changing circumstances and opportunities.”
At the family summit in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, hosted by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr Mitchell announced that UK spending on family planning in the developing world would double from the existing aid budget to £180m a year.
With a woman dying in pregnancy or childbirth every two minutes, 99 per cent of them in the developing world, the aim is to save the lives of 120 million women by 2020.
However a coalition of pro-life groups were protesting outside the conference today, claiming that the new approach ‘fails to address the serious health challenges’ faced by women and children in these poor countries.
“Hurling contraceptives at one of the world’s most vulnerable groups completely misunderstands the challenges faced by the women and children of the Global South. What governments and civil society organisations should be focusing their considerable resources on is the improvement of maternal and paediatric care, economic development, and skills training,” said Andy Stephenson of the Abort 67 campaign group.
The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute also criticized the summit. “The upshot is contraception will have a higher priority than education, basic health care, infrastructure, and economic improvements – measures that empower women and communities. None of the contraception programmes will help pregnant women or newborns,” said Wendy Wright, Executive Director of C-FAM.
Meanwhile, inside Mr Mitchell told the summit: “The health and rights of girls and women are front and centre of Britain’s aid programme. Being able to plan the size of her family is a fundamental right that we believe all women should have.”
Crucially, the UK programme will support governments, civil society organisations and religious groups in tackling social barriers to family planning with education, counselling, information campaigns and the creation of safeguards against coercion.
Ms Allen said the initiative recognised that ensuring modern contraceptive methods are available did not mean that uptake will naturally follow.
“A focus only on the provision of contraceptives and advice will fail if it does not recognise the role of men, extended family members, traditional leaders, and faith leaders in influencing decisions around family planning,” she said. “Women’s empowerment has to be supported and enabled by the wider community.
“This initiative recognises the importance of not only providing contraception, but also of increasing knowledge and awareness, helping to build empowering communities which all support the goal of saving lives.”