From schoolgirls in Sierra Leone to mothers in Bolivia, women are showing what they can achieve if they are given the opportunity to thrive
We are knee-deep in bad news and I've lost count of the number of conversations I have had with people anxious about the future, particularly for women and girls, but I am staying hopeful.
And the reason: two plasters.
They may not look like much but as I watched young girls in rural Sierra Leone proudly displaying the two bands on their arm, the only sign of the contraceptive implant they had queued up so excitedly to receive, I was struck by their significance.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world with the highest maternal mortality yet the confidence of these young girls as they lined up for the implant was phenomenal. It was cool to have those bands. They wanted to postpone having children so they could finish their studies and go on to start a career. It was so powerful.
I was lucky to be born in the UK when abortion was already legal. I was taught at school about sexual and reproductive health in a non-judgmental way and felt empowered as a teenager to make choices that were right for me. I had access to contraception when I needed it and felt I had exactly the same right as boys to study and work in the way I wanted.
Around the world it is a very different story. Girls are the first to drop out of school, and the first to be failed by the system, facing the perils of pregnancy, early marriage and HIV/AIDS. Nearly one in five adolescent girls in low and middle-income countries become pregnant before they reach 18 - yet the solution is simple.
As a long-serving team member and now a trustee of family planning organisation Marie Stopes International, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, I have seen first-hand the transformative effect that contraception can have.
From the girls in Sierra Leone excited about their future to the woman I met in Zimbabwe who had walked for five hours to have an IUD fitted; or the mother of four in Bolivia whose baby I held as she had a tubal ligation and who told me how proud she was of taking the decision for her family. Different choices, different life stages and different countries but wherever you are, being able to make that decision and access the safe method of your choice is really empowering.
In the 40 years that Marie Stopes International has been supporting women, countries from Bangladesh to Zambia have taken great strides in sexual and reproductive health and rights. Contraception has been prioritised and in some countries at least, legal restrictions to safe abortion have started easing. Today six out of 10 married women in the developing world are using contraception, up from around one in 10 in 1960, contributing to a large drop in the percentage of women dying in pregnancy.
To help drive these developments, Marie Stopes International has also changed since we opened the doors of our first clinic in London in 1976. As well as expanding out from the UK to 37 countries around the world, we have pioneered innovative ways to reach women, from training private healthcare providers to provide high quality care for some of the world's most under-served people, to being the first to pilot outreach for family planning - we are taking contraceptive services to where women are.
We have also helped remove unnecessary policy and clinical barriers that prevent women and girls from accessing lifesaving services. This year alone we helped secure 10 policy changes including approval for midwives to insert contraceptive implants in the Philippines where a lack of trained doctors was restricting women's access, new national abortion guidelines in Vietnam and the registration of lifesaving Misoprostol in Sri Lanka - a WHO essential medicine to manage miscarriage and post-partum haemorrhage, as well as for abortion and the treatment of post-abortion complications.
So despite all the bad news, I remain hopeful that in the next 40 years many more women all over the world will enjoy the same opportunities I had, and the means not just to prevent unplanned pregnancy but to fulfil their hopes and dreams for the future.
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