Last week, I was honoured to address a United Nations Commission at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
I spoke about making family planning in the developing world available to more women and men, to cut the number of deaths from AIDS and maternal mortality. It was chilling to realise that in the eight minutes I spoke, eight women across the world had died from treatable and preventable complications during pregnancy and childbirth – an estimated half a million women a year.
Growing up when I did in England, getting access to contraception was not a real issue. It was readily available and I took it for granted.
It was not until my visit to Bangladesh, the slums of Dhaka and the tea plantations of Sylhet, that I begun to realise why the politics of reproductive rights is essential to ending poverty across the world.
It was there that I had the privilege to meet a young mother, married at ten who gave birth a year later. She told me about her desire to become a doctor.
She had enrolled in a UN sponsored health programme that taught her about the way her body worked, sex, AIDS and contraception. It was wonderful, she said, to find out how babies were made, and now she and her husband could do something to control the numbers of children she had and when.
She explained to me that she needed a career now, because she had the knowledge and wherewithal to control her fertility she would most likely live longer, past thirty – and so would need a job so she could support her family.
As we said goodbye she made me promise to remember her. I promised, and that’s why I went to New York.
There are many people like that little girl in Dhaka – touched and changed by programmes that this country and others support through international aid. More children are enrolled into schools in the developing world than ever before and child mortality has declined globally, but there is so much more to do.
The number of people dying from AIDS worldwide is increasing – an estimated 2.9 million died in 2006 alone. More than 15 million children have lost one or both parents to this dreadful disease.
Despite this, access to contraceptives, which could make such a difference, remains so very low, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa – at just 21%.
Since Barack Obama’s election, the US Government has changed its policy and is funding family planning programmes again, but things are still not easy.
We know that all over the world Governments are facing extraordinary economic difficulties, but I believe that we must continue to fund programmes like this in the developing world as to do anything else will cost more lives. It will also, inevitably, cost more money. Fewer condoms will mean more HIV and a greater need for more expensive retroviral drugs. Fewer condoms will result in more dying from AIDS, from complications during pregnancy; and will result in more orphans and more poverty.
Access to education and family planning supplies is a very simple thing that can be done to end so much preventable suffering. We need to tackle these issues if we are to end poverty in the developing world.