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In Defense of Reproductive Rights for All

Photo: Courtesy of Luma Pimentel

Natalia Kanem, M.D.

Under-Secretary-General, United Nations and Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund

Every day across the globe, more than 800 women die of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. These women, and very often girls, are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the world — and they are just the tip of the iceberg. For every woman who dies of pregnancy-related complications, many more suffer debilitating childbirth injuries, such as obstetric fistula.

An issue of inequality

Yet most of these tragedies are entirely preventable when women and girls are able to exercise their reproductive rights. This means being able to decide whether, when, with whom and how often to bear children. It means having a safe pregnancy, safe delivery and a safe postpartum period for both mother and baby. It includes access to comprehensive sexuality education so young people can learn about their bodies, understand relationships and choose suitable contraceptives. It includes adequate care for women who suffer a miscarriage or postpartum depression.

Denial of reproductive rights is an issue of inequality. Globally, women living in rural areas, with lower education and limited autonomy, are at higher risk of maternal death and unintended pregnancy, and so are teenage girls.

The poorest women have the least access to quality care during pregnancy and childbirth and the least power to decide whether or when to become pregnant. More than 200 million women around the world who want to avoid pregnancy are not using modern family planning for reasons ranging from lack of access to information or services to lack of support from their partners or societies.

A duty to protect​​​​​​​

The global community has recognized reproductive health as a right and gender equality, which depends on women’s ability to exercise this right, as a cornerstone for development. While we have come a long way in recent decades, girls’ and women’s rights and health remain political, social and cultural battlegrounds, and hard-won gains are being gradually eroded.

At UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, we are determined to promote and protect reproductive rights for all. We are working to ensure safe birth everywhere and to end violence against women and girls, including child marriage and female genital mutilation. As the world’s largest public provider of contraceptives for developing countries, UNFPA works to reach women and adolescent girls with a full range of contraceptive choices. Last year alone, these contraceptives helped avert 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 15,000 maternal deaths, 97,000 child deaths and 1.9 million unsafe abortions.

An urgent crisis

With 1.8 billion young people, aged 10-24, entering their childbearing years, ensuring they have access to the information and services they need for their sexual and reproductive health is especially urgent. Four out of five young people live in developing countries, where unmet need for modern contraception accounts for more than 8 in 10 of all unintended pregnancies.

This has far-reaching consequences: when a teenager gets pregnant, she may be forced to drop out of school, diminishing her job prospects and making her more vulnerable to poverty and exclusion. When her body is not mature enough to bear a child, her health often suffers. This can be a death sentence. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading killer of 15 to 19-year-old girls globally.

It is said that if you close your eyes to facts, you learn through accidents. The facts are clear: and so is the path ahead.

No one should learn through accidents. Let’s empower adolescent girls and all young people to reach their full potential. No one should die giving life. Let’s ensure that women and girls everywhere have the information and services they need to plan their lives, their livelihoods and their families.

It’s their right and it’s the right thing to do.

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