Women's reproductive rights are central to economic empowerment

Women's reproductive rights are central to economic empowerment
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From Nov. 12-14,  the Government of Kenya, the Government of Denmark and UNFPA are convening the world for the Nairobi Summit.

In 1994 a landmark event marked the beginning of concerted progress globally on the issue of women’s reproductive health and rights. The International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo marked the beginning of international consensus on vital issues including human rights, gender equality and sustainable development. 

A central focus of the Plan of Action in Cairo was comprehensive reproductive healthcare, which included providing universal access to family planning and contraception; ensuring safe pregnancies and deliveries; provision of safe and legal abortions; prevention, education and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases; and the elimination of forced practices that harm women, especially female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriages. 

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Twenty-five years later, progress remains uneven and challenging and there remains an unmet promise despite the efforts of many dedicated countries and people

The tragic reality is that there are some parts of the world where women’s rights have actually regressed. 

Around 214 to 225 million women globally who want contraception are unable to access it. Some 830 women die daily — one every two minutes — from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. 

Of more than 404,000 maternal deaths every year, over half are in sub-Saharan Africa and a third are in South Asia. More than 200 million women around the world have experienced FGM, predominantly in the Middle East and Africa, with another 3 million girls at risk of undergoing the barbaric practice every year. 

Around 47,000 girls and women die every year as a consequence of unsafe abortions. 

These statistics paint a dire picture, but they are only the most obvious part of a more complex problem. Often ignored are the long-term consequences of failure to provide women with reproductive health and rights. 

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The consequences are global, because as long as the world faces the problems of rapidly rising populations (nearly 10 billion by 2050 globally) in the poorest parts of the world and women dying as a result of pregnancy, we set ourselves up to fail on a whole host of other issues that affect the progress of all humanity. 

These include universal health care, education, climate change, economic growth, population control, social security and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) of 2030. 

Women’s reproductive rights are central to their ability to progress and empower themselves economically. Preventing access to family planning services and education, forcing women into unsafe abortions, making it difficult for them to access essential antenatal services, and outlawing their right to make informed decisions about their own bodies combine to make it increasingly unsafe to be born female in some parts of the world. 

It also leads to a very real inability for women to participate fully in global economic progress. Many experts argue that investing in women’s reproductive health will significantly positively impact the global economy. UNDP says that gender inequality is costing sub-Saharan Africa on average $US95 billion a year

Women invest 90 per cent of their income into their family, compared to men's 30 to 40 percent. This alone is likely to make a positive impact on children’s health, school attendance and nutrition. 

A 2015 McKinsey report found that if women were able to participate and contribute in the global economy in the same way as men — which can only be achieved when women have the necessary reproductive rights —there could be as much as USD 28 trillion added to the global GDP. 

The SDGs also recognizes innovation as critical to accelerating progress towards global development aspirations. We must embrace innovation to deliver on the goal of three zeros transformative for both women and men: zero unmet need for family planning; zero maternal deaths; and zero violence and harmful practices against women and girls, including child marriage and female genital mutilation. 

Twenty-five years later, as we consider the trail-blazing ambitions of Cairo and look forward to Nairobi, we must maintain a laser sharp focus on the challenges still before us.  

We cannot rest until appropriate resources, policies and finances are allocated to ensure that every girl, regardless of the circumstances of her birth, lives in a world where she has the right and the means to manage her sexual and reproductive health. 

We just cannot fail half of humanity.

Jarmo Sareva is the ambassador for Innovations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland. Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya.