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Great Sexpectations?

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The ability to plan when we want to have a family is something that most of us in the UK take for granted. Until we decide that the time is right to have children we can access a wide range of contraception with accompanying advice free of charge, thanks to the NHS. For many women in developing countries, the situation couldn't be more different. Often contraception is simply not available. Where it is available there are still many barriers which can stand in the way of a woman being able to use it, or to insist that her partner does.

On 11 July, the UK government, together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is hosting an international summit on family planning which will bring together governments from across the world. The focus on this issue is exceptionally welcome and is central to the upholding of the international community's decision that women have the right to reproductive choice. It is too often one which donors and decision-makers shy away from because of the ugly way in which some seek to politicise it. That said, it is a great pity that they have chosen to hold the event on World Population Day as this risks sending out mixed messages about the motivation for this initiative. It is wrong to imply that population growth is a cause of poverty. There is more than enough food, water and other resources to meet everyone's requirements - poverty is caused by imbalances in, and abuse of, power and not by some people in poor countries having large families. Hopefully the outcomes of the summit will focus on enhancing women's rights to access and use contraception rather than anything else.

And on this, there is quite a job to do. We know that there is a gap into which a minimum of 200million women fall because their needs for contraception are unmet. Getting condoms, pills and other supplies onto the ground is one essential part of what needs to be done to deal with this. But it is only one side of the coin. If women are to be able to make use of these then we need to also tackle the flip side of the coin - the gender inequality and unequal power relations between men and women which mean that women and girls often cannot decide when or whether they have sex, including whether contraception is used.

I often get the impression that politicians shy away from talking about women's rights because it is perceived as being too difficult to tackle. Discrimination and violence against women is about culture, right, and it's not our job to change that? Wrong. It is both our responsibility to tackle these issues as well as a practical necessity if the aid money that we are spending in this area is to be able to be as effective as possible. It can be done and we know how to do it. In ActionAid's new report on family planning, we look at the personal stories of four women in sub-Saharan Africa. One of them, Evelyn Flomo in Liberia, explained how interventions can help to tackle these underlying power issues:

"Before ActionAid came into the community we didn't talk back to the men but things have changed a bit. Some men are now listening to their wives and women have increased confidence to speak out in public... However, men are still making decisions about having children... We need to have a program for men to understand the need for family planning and stop making women have so many children."

So at the Family Planning Summit, pledges for this second half of the equation on women's empowerment are badly needed. Programmes that build everyone's awareness of women's rights and support women and girls to claim these rights, for example by ensuring they are able to speak out about problems and make decisions about whether and when to have children are vital. Aid can play a huge role in making these possible - surely this isn't too great a sexpectation?

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