Rich countries pledged large financial resources to expand access to contraception to some 120 million women and girls in the developing world at the recent London Summit on Family Planning. Such promises seem audacious, especially when many G8 countries — having reneged on their aid commitments for years — are now pulling back even more under the domestic drive of austerity. The fresh commitments announced also come close on the heels of the perceived failure of the June 2012 U.N. conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio declaration was criticised as having failed to restore lost momentum on gender equality in recent years owing to reduced resource allocation and diminishing political support. The positive fallout of the global impetus on family planning in the 1980s and 1990s is there for all to see. According to World Health Organisation estimates, the number of women who died annually due to pregnancy and childbirth related deaths declined by one-third between 1990 and 2008. Over this period, deaths among newborns declined from 3.5 to 3.2 million annually. The U.N. Population Fund estimates that doubling current investments to $24.6 billion would reduce the still unacceptably high rates of maternal and neonatal deaths, especially in the developing world.

Family planning lies at the heart of a host of politically contentious and divisive issues surrounding human development. The issue of women’s reproductive rights has acquired immense political potency given the backlash from the religious right in the United States and some orthodox Muslim and Christian countries where issues around family planning get mixed up with abortion. Then, it is also tainted by association with the much discredited ‘population control’ policies and the resort to coercive use of sterilisation at the expense of women’s agency and autonomy. In India and other Asian countries, attempts to enforce the so-called two-child norm to determine family size, against the cultural backdrop of a preference for boys, has already resulted in skewed sex ratios. The Indian government must actively move away from the recourse to incentives and disincentives to influence healthy fertility outcomes and instead promote measures to augment women’s overall well-being and gender equality. In addition to access to appropriate contraception services, a policy framework is needed that would empower women to control pregnancies, and space and limit child-births. The absence of such an environment is said to be the reason why the international community is farthest from reaching targeted reductions in rates of maternal mortality under the Millennium Development Goals.

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