Access to contraception is a universal human right and, as a thirty-something woman in the UK, coming from the background I do, I’m pleased to say it’s a right I find fairly easy to realise.
For me, taking control of my reproductive health is fairly straightforward. I have a choice of clinics that are free, easy to get to and staffed by fully trained professionals prepared to respect my dignity and my right to confidentiality - though if my peers found out, the worst I’m likely to get called for being there is ‘sensible’. Equally, while it’s generally expected that I would want to get married and have children, it’s still my choice, and I certainly don’t feel that it’s my only route to a safe and financially secure future. If I do marry, I get to choose my partner and know that I still have the right to refuse to have sex with them. I would expect us to be able to discuss contraception openly and, if we disagreed about the number of children we should have, I would know that any attempt on his part to force or coerce me into unprotected sex was both wrong and against the law. I would feel able to leave him immediately, knowing that both the state and my friends and family would support me and I would have somewhere safe and comfortable to go.
I also know that my enjoyment of these rights is unusual. I would hesitate to claim that the majority of women in the UK were able to take advantage of all these freedoms, let alone women in countries with fewer resources or less of a track record on upholding human and women’s rights. The stories collected by ActionAid UK for their recent report Sex, choice and control: the reality of family planning for women and girls today are a stark reminder that they should never be taken for granted, and how much work we have still to do to make sure they are enjoyed by all women, everywhere.
The London Family Planning Summit on the 11th July should be a huge step forward. Bringing together governments, donors, charities and other leaders, if it meets its aspirations, it will generate investment in contraceptive products and services that will pave the way for 120 million more women and girls to use them between 2012 and 2020 - saving the lives of over 200,000 women. It’s an effort of which its hosts, DFID the Gates Foundation, can be rightly proud.
But as the case studies in the report show, making contraceptives available is only part of the story. While leaders are together for the Summit, we’re asking them to go further - putting women’s rights and empowerment at the top of their agenda and pledging to take action to ensure that women around the world enjoy the same freedoms and protection from violence that women like me take for granted. Whether it’s committing money for projects that build community support to end rape and other violence against women and girls, or agreeing to create laws that support women’s rights and punish those that infringe them, there is much more that leaders at the Summit can and must do to realise their dream of universal contraceptive access.
Contraception should be a woman’s choice, but that doesn’t mean it’s solely her responsibility. Men and women, families and communities, donors and governments need to step up, to ensure that contraception is put within women’s reach and that they have the power to use it.