Family planning is a matter of social justice

Leaders have the opportunity to unleash women's full potential.

Many leaders from government and civil society will meet in London today to discuss family planning. What they discuss will have an impact on women and girls around the world.

Today more than 25,000 girls under the age of 18 will get married, and the same number will do so tomorrow, the next day, and the next. For the majority of these girls, pregnancy and childbirth will soon follow.

Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19 in low and middle-income countries, resulting in thousands of deaths every year. That so many women die as a result of complications from pregnancy or childbirth in the 21st century is a shocking indictment of the low priority given to the needs and status of women and girls in many societies.

As well, many suffer complications in childbirth. In the case of fistula, women may be rejected by their husbands and families and outcast by their communities. They may endure intense shame and physical pain.

Access to reproductive health services is a health issue, but it is also an issue of social justice and human development. It is a basic human right for women to enjoy full legal equality and equality of opportunity, and for a girl born today, in any country, to have the same life prospects as any boy.

When women’s needs for family planning and reproductive and sexual health services go unmet, their chances of finishing their education, entering and remaining in productive work, and breaking out of poverty are sharply reduced.

All too often, women and girls are discriminated against not only in access to health services, but also in education and in the labour market — with negative repercussions for not only their own freedoms, but for progress in their countries as a whole.  In 2010, UNDP introduced the Gender Inequality Index as part of its Human Development Reports, to reveal differences in the distribution of human development achievements between women and men so that policymakers know to take steps to reduce disparities.

Empowering women and girls is one of the strongest tools available to accelerate development. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are an essential component of that empowerment.

When women have control over their health and sexuality, they can plan their pregnancy and childbirth, better protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and fare better in their families, households, communities, and countries.

This summit, hosted by the UK government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with UNFPA and other partners, could mark the start of a new drive to empower women and girls.

The Guttmacher Institute and UNFPA estimate that meeting the unmet need for modern family planning methods in developing countries would cost about $8.1 billion annually. With $4 billion of this total now being invested, there is a shortfall of $4.1 billion.

Leaders have the opportunity to help plug the $4.1 billion a year funding gap in order to get contraception to the hundreds of millions of women who would like to access family planning, but can’t.

Leaders can also take this opportunity to ensure that women’s and girls’ rights are enshrined in law, empowering them to decide whether, when, and how many children they have. 

When women can access family planning, they have the opportunity to shape their own future, and that of their children.  The benefits are felt across whole nations.

All our societies are the poorer if they fail to tap the full potential of half their population, and do not remove the obstacles to their success.

Helen Clark is the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand
 

A Philippine health worker lectures pregnant women on responsible family planning. Photograph: Getty Images
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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser