Reproductive healthcare a global issue


OPINION:Investing in women and children is the best plan for a more sustainable population growth rate

TODAY, THE United Nations will declare that the world population has reached seven billion. A baby born somewhere in the world today will be formally recognised as the seven billionth citizen of our planet.

Reaching this milestone is a daunting prospect. In my lifetime alone, the world population has more than tripled. There is no doubt that the challenges this presents are complex. Every aspect of human development is directly affected by population growth: health, education, food security, responding to climate change, gender equality, economic growth and employment.

Although fertility rates are dropping and the actual rate of population growth is slowing, there are still 80 million people being added to the world every year. In the poorest areas of the planet, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the population is still rising. It is expected to at least double in less than 40 years.

Given these figures, it is perhaps not surprising that some commentators conclude that our efforts to reduce poverty are doomed to failure.

With the average woman in Ethiopia and Mozambique giving birth to five children, how can we possibly succeed in feeding the hungry, educating children, saving lives though basic healthcare programmes and creating and supporting sustainable livelihoods? The numbers are just too overwhelming, the argument goes. Better to just turn away from this intractable problem and stop throwing good money after bad.

As the Minister charged with overseeing Ireland’s development aid programme, I reject this simplistic line of argument. It ignores the central fact that rapid population growth alone is not the cause of poverty. The situation is more complex. Poverty also actually drives high population growth.

If we want to address the challenges posed by a rapidly expanding world population, we have to address the root causes of that expansion. In poor countries, extreme poverty, food insecurity, inequality, high death rates and high birth rates are all linked in a vicious cycle.

The challenge is to break that cycle. And this is eminently possible. We know what it takes. Investing in health, particularly sexual and reproductive health, and in education for women and girls is fundamental.

In country after country, women and girls who have at least completed primary school choose to have fewer children. Women who can access information on family planning options and safe, effective and affordable contraception use it to plan their family size in a way that maximises their own potential and that of their children.

Providing women with access to reproductive healthcare – family planning services and healthcare during pregnancy and birth – is not just an end in itself. It also has a transformative effect on women’s vulnerability to poverty, hunger and economic and social discrimination.

The choice to have smaller families allows for greater investment in each child’s healthcare, nutrition and education, improved productivity and better long-term prospects – for women, their families and their societies.

It is the creation of such a virtuous cycle that Ireland’s aid programme, Irish Aid, consistently aims to support through all our work. In 2010, Irish Aid provided €145 million in support to the health and education sectors in our nine partner countries and through global level partnerships.

Since 2006, we have provided almost €30 million to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – to support better reproductive health services for women in the developing world.

Ireland is a member of UNFPA’s executive board this year and we are working closely with it to develop strategies and programmes that reach the poorest and most vulnerable women and allow them to make real choices over their lives. I had the privilege of launching UNFPA’s 2011 report last week, which makes a detailed and persuasive case that investing in women and children is the best strategy we have to place global population growth rates onto a more sustainable path.

Much work remains to be done: today, some 215 million women worldwide lack access to safe, effective and affordable forms of contraception. Up to half a million women die in pregnancy and childbirth each year. This is simply unacceptable.

The international community has made real progress on many important development goals in the last 10 years; school enrolment and child health have improved, child deaths have been reduced and access to clean water and sanitation has been expanded.

We need to replicate this progress in the area of reproductive health. Ireland is committed to doing everything we can to support this aim. It is imperative that we do so – not just for the women and girls in the developing world that deserve our help and support, but in the interests of creating a more sustainable planet for all of us.

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