I’ve just returned from the International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where thousands of leaders and experts came together to discuss how to improve access and choice in family planning services across the globe. One of the highlights of the conference for me was speaking on a panel about the role women leaders can play in this arena.
I don’t think you have to be a woman to be committed to achieving equity in access to family planning services. There are countless men in leadership roles that are deeply committed to expanding equity across the board, including in access to family planning. That said, I think having women in leadership positions is incredibly important.
We often talk about women leaders as role models for girls. Certainly having women in leadership roles lets girls see someone who looks like them doing things they might dream of doing and helps validate those dreams. But women in leadership positions are role models for boys too—that women belong in leadership positions, that having women in these roles is normative. Having women in leadership roles in government is an especially public acknowledgement of legitimacy.
Governments have a responsibility to treat their citizens equitably, which means they have a special role to play in addressing disparities, whether that is as a direct provider of health services or by making it attractive for the private sector to serve the underserved or both. When governments prioritize making it possible for poor women, rural families, adolescents, and racial or ethnic minorities to exercise their right to choose the number, timing, and spacing of their children by expanding access to high quality, voluntary family planning information, services, and methods, they send a message about their commitment to equity and rights.
Having women employed in visible roles in government programs, whether they are in formalized leadership positions or not, also sends that message. And there are great examples all around us:
- Managing the largest portfolio that USAID has in Asia, female Foreign Service Nationals at USAID’s Bangladesh mission have strengthened the family planning portfolio. Dr. Umme Meena in the mission there—and other men and women like her employed as Foreign Service Nationals by the U.S. government worldwide—demonstrate America’s commitment to equity in family planning every day.
- In Amhara, Ethiopia, USAID supports activities to prevent child marriage by identifying young female community mentors who can advocate against marriage before the age of 18. These youth leaders are powerful agents of change and gender equity in their communities.
- Community health workers are some of the most passionate and committed champions for equity in access to family planning and health services. Esther Nyokabi in Kenya is an illiterate woman who overcame significant personal obstacles to become a champion for post-abortion care. She mobilized her community to demand better health infrastructure from the government. She is now a passionate community health worker and part of a government –sponsored training team for post-abortion care. Her efforts have brought life-saving antenatal care, skilled attendance at delivery, and family planning services to a community that did not have health services previously.
It is the commitment, passion, and actions of leaders like these that will achieve full choice in family planning.