When we talk about family planning, the discussion often centers around the notion of “choice” – women’s right to choose if, when and with whom to have children; what birth control method to use; and what to do in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. We recognize that too many women and girls currently lack these choices and do not have control over their reproductive decisions. We know that there are 222 million women in developing countries who would like to delay or stop childbearing but do not have access to birth control methods –  also referred to as the “unmet need for family planning”. We know that 800 women lose their lives every day to preventable causes related to pregnancy and child birth, and that many of these deaths could be prevented through simply providing women with access to contraception. We know that 47,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions, due to lack of access to birth control, and lack of access to safe, affordable and legal abortion services.

Behind women’s lack of choices and decision-making power lie underlying challenges related to poverty, gender inequality and power dynamics that strip women of their ability to make their own reproductive choices.  Poverty doesn’t only manifest itself as lack of income or material goods, but is fundamentally about lack of choice, lack of power and lack of opportunity. For women in poverty, there is no choice involved when it comes to family planning  – women and girls give up their health, their independence, their education, their income, and their lives because they are unable to take control over their reproductive and family planning decisions, not only because they lack access to services but because of inequality, patriarchy and discrimination.

All over the world, women’s bodies are still not their own.

Addressing these challenges requires more than just addressing the issue of access, because access is not enough to ensure that women actually have decision-making power. Bringing services to women won’t help, if family planning decisions are still made by men. Availability and affordability of birth control won’t make a change, if women are still prevented from using it by their partners and husbands. Access to skilled birth attendants can only do so much, if girls are married off as children and face increased risks of complications due to early pregnancies.

While providing women and girls with access to family planning services  is a necessary starting point, efforts that aim to improve women’s control over their fertility and reproductive decisions must also address gender inequality, power dynamics, social norms, patriarchal traditions and the fundamental issue of poverty for any progress and change to truly be sustainable.

These are topics that the discussions taking place at the Third International Conference on Family Planning aim to address. Many of the plenaries, panels and events at the Conference titled “Full Access, Full Choice” focus on providing women and girls improved access to high quality, affordable and reliable services, but panels also include topics such as The Rights-Based Approach to Family Planning; Quality of Care in Family Planning; and Men and Family Planning. Plenaries such as Achieving Equity through Women in Leadership and Making Family Planning Integral to Development and the Post-MDG Agenda are sure to provide space for discussions that look beyond access, and address the bigger issue of women’s empowerment, gender equality and power dynamics.

Girls’ Globe is in Addis Ababa, reporting live from panels, plenaries and events. Follow and join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ICFPLive hashtag, sign up for the Daily Delivery, visit the ICFPLive Hub for crowdsourced content curated by FHI 360,  and follow Girls’ Globe for live updates, videos and images from Ethiopia.

Women must be brought to the table, to the discussions and decision making. They need to be consulted, addressed and listened to, because women and girls are not the problem, but the solution, to challenges such as population growth and sustainable development. It’s time to move beyond access towards empowerment and equality, and bring women at the center of the discussion – and solution.


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