Speech

Baroness Verma: International Conference on Family Planning

Baroness Verma sets out the UK's commitment to giving girls and women access to voluntary family planning.

Baroness Verma

I would like to thank our hosts for inviting me, my fellow honourable Ministers and all conference participants for listening to my words today.

The UK has put girls and women at the front and centre of our international development work.

We believe it’s a matter of basic human rights.

Giving girls and women a choice

Girls’ and women’s right to have control over their own bodies…to have a voice in their community and country…to live a life free of violence and the fear of violence…to choose who to marry and when…their right to be in education … to determine whether and when to have children and how many to have and their right to work, earn money and build the future they want.

But gender equality is also also critical to wider development goals…no country can truly develop if it leaves half its population behind.

We know that when girls stay in school for just one extra year of primary school they can boost their eventual wages by up to twenty per cent.

And when women get extra earnings, we know they then reinvest that back into their families and back into their communities.

McKinsey estimate that if women in every country played an identical role in markets to men…as much as twenty eight trillion dollars would be added to the global economy by 2025.

The same research finds that if every nation only matched the progress of its fastest-improving neighbour, it would add twelve trillion dollars to the global economy.

Investing in girls and women is the right thing to do…it’s also one of the very best investments we can make.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are absolutely fundamental to this. When women have multiple, unintended pregnancies and births - when they face a high risk of dying in childbirth and when they are unable to decide for themselves whether, when and how many children to have, they are also unable to participate fully in education and employment.

We know rights-based family planning enables a girl to avoid a life trajectory of early, frequent and risky pregnancies, and instead complete her education and take up better economic opportunities.

These are the essential elements of the demographic transition, the shift from high fertility and mortality to far fewer births and deaths, the shift that ensures investments in gender equality, in education and in training and jobs can be converted into the demographic dividend of higher economic growth and prosperity for all. We’ve seen these policies and process in action in countries across East Asia particularly. We’re ready to support countries in Africa who choose this path.

Getting back on track

A lot of progress has been made. But we are not yet on-track to reach the FP2020 goal we all committed to in 2012 at the London Summit. We are failing to reach adolescent girls and young women who want to use family planning. We are failing to reach the poorest. We are failing to meet the reproductive health needs of women and girls in conflict.

We are failing to change social norms about family planning so that women’s and girls’ rights and their ability to control their own fertility become an ordinary part of life for communities everywhere. These are the changes that will be truly transformational.

We have come together here in Bali because we are all committed to change. There is much more we all need to do to deliver on the commitments in 2012. If we act now, we can still reach this goal and be on course for universal access by 2030.

That means truly prioritising family planning . It means budgeting for it, finding the funds for the contraceptives and tackling head-on the discrimination that prevents young people, especially unmarried women and girls, from getting the services they need. It means changing attitudes and social norms so that it is the uncut girl who finishes her education before marriage is valued. It means demonstrating our support publically, encouraging others to do the same and making sure that access to safe and affordable contraception becomes a normal part of life for everyone.

The UK’s role

The UK will play our part. Our Government is fully committed to the goal of family planning for all who want it. We will deliver on the ambitious commitment of our Prime Minister. By 2020 this will result in 24 million additional women and girls using modern voluntary contraception. The numbers are important – this is an ambitious agenda. But we also need to ensure that no-one is left behind – and here we explicitly mean adolescents and women and girls living through humanitarian crises.

That’s why DFID is challenging itself to find innovative ways to meet the family planning needs of young people, including adolescents. And why, in humanitarian crises, DFID’s calls for proposals will now require the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls to be considered. The UK commitment to the renewed Every Woman Every Child Strategy, launched at the UN in September, puts these issues at the heart of our vision for the sector to 2030. We remain committed to supporting progress across the continuum of care, prioritising maternal and newborn health, and addressing HIV, particularly for key populations.

The UK is very clear – access to voluntary modern contraception is a crucial part of wider sexual and reproductive health and rights – as agreed by the world in Cairo in 1994 and its subsequent reviews. I am therefore proud that the UK government is also a strong voice on the more difficult issues. Access to safe abortion, for example, reduces recourse to unsafe abortion and saves maternal lives. We need the courage to do what the evidence tells us women and girls still need.

Increasing access to affordable, quality female and male condoms to young people is also critical in order to provide dual protection against unwanted pregnancy as well as HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

I am proud that the UK has led the way in supporting the Africa-led movement to end FGM. Ending FGM and ending child marriage are fundamental to girls and women being able to control what happens to their own bodies –and their own lives. The Girl Summit in 2014 in London was a watershed moment which broke the silence on these sensitive and taboo issues. No girl should live with the fear of being cut, the fear of being married too young, the fear of carrying a child too young, the fear of giving birth when her body is not ready, the fear of the potential risks of this – of haemorrhage, of being left with a leaky bladder thanks to obstetric fistula, the real risk of dying.

We need to act now

We have a big job ahead of us, but if we step up our collective efforts we can succeed. There are 225 million women and girls who want to use modern contraception and can’t get it. This is a staggering number – yet we know what needs to be done. We need clarity of purpose, everyone needs to focus and get on with it. This is fundamental. We must not fail these millions and millions of women and girls. We cannot fail them. A block on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls is a block on economic development across the board.

But we do need to act now. We have a narrow window to get back on track with FP2020 goals. We also have a tremendous opportunity with the new SDGs, whose implementation will be secured or lost in the next few years. The family planning community needs to be at the heart of those discussions. These means a fresh commitment from all of us. And it means talking to other sectors to put the comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights for every girl, adolescent, women everywhere, at the centre of absolutely everything to do. Thank you.

Published 25 January 2016