It's clear that last week's London Family Planning Summit was a success. The vibe at the Summit was electric with many global leaders making big promises. A massive well done to Melinda Gates, who nudged world leaders to pledge more $2.8 billion in support of family planning up to 2020.
But it's also true that what leaders call summits are in development terms more like base camps. Many more steps are needed to reach the goal. And after listening to courageous women who have spent most of their lives working to make fellow women's lives better, and after eavesdropping on men who hold the money and power, I've come to the view that if we want to celebrate eight years down the line, we'll have to look out for the following pitfalls.
Women at the Centre Vs. Men on the Stage
Family planning is not a women's issue alone. It concerns the whole family. But is a well known secret that family planning has become a woman's responsibility and depends on women. Ms. Theo Sowa, CEO of African Women's Development Fund came on strong when she said "Women should be at core of this initiative as active participants and not just as mere recipients". But having women at the centre of family planning has proved to be much harder than everyone thought - the majority of those on stage at the London Summit were men. Venkatesh Iyer, Director of Corporate Strategy of Family Care Limited was the one who pointed out "we all should be ashamed of how we marginalise women". If Melinda and her partners want to make sure that family planning is a success, then it must be lead by the women champions who carry out tireless campaigning in male dominated public and political arenas. The job is half done when the women in question can see another woman leading the way. So support champions in every country.
Supporting Choice Vs. Pushing Population Control
There was lots of discussion prior to and during the Summit about it the risks of promoting what could be perceived as a coercive approach to down size the world's population. While Anuradha Gupta, Joint Secretary for Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of India, was busy delivering a promise at the Summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to make a statement in the Indian Parliament that they would not use "coercive" methods to stabilise the population, and assure that family planning would be done through education and empowerment of women. We need to be absolutely clear that numbers should not drive the campaign. As Ms. Theo Sowa puts it "Education is one of the best family planning techniques we have, so let's educate and empower our women". So don't push.
Creating demand Vs. Putting on a price tag
As Mrs. Zainab Hawa Bangura, Minister of Health of Sierra Leone noted, "1 in 3 girls under 18 get pregnant ... integrating services will create demand and will help these girls make the right choices". President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania highlighted that unmet needs contribute to unwanted pregnancies, maternal deaths and other related complications. When we listen to these statements, we have to keep in mind that many countries in Africa and Asia have a very low age limit for marriage. The minimum age for marriage needs to be lifted high enough to give these girls a chance to think about what they would like to do with their life, then there will be an organic rise of demand for contraceptives. But if health providers introduce a user fee or charge for the contraceptives, believe me, there will be far fewer takers. One of the speakers at the summit noted it can cost three times the daily wage to get a condom. If the choice is between starving and buying a condom, I don't have to tell you what will win. So, no price tags.
Family Planning is key to saving and improving women's lives. As Ros Davies, CEO of Women and Children First UK, noted, "Family Planning is one of the most effective and cost-effective ways of improving maternal health and preventing unnecessary maternal and newborn deaths. Our work shows that when women can plan their pregnancies, so they don't become pregnant when very young or too often, and not too many times, their chances of a healthy and safe pregnancy and producing a healthy baby are greatly increased."
By ensuring women are at the centre, by supporting choice, and by creating demand, we can help ensure women are able to decide whether and when to have children. The London Summit was not an ending, but could be a beginning. Now comes the most difficult part of the journey, and we'll need to climb together.
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