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
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit