One of the most pressing health issues facing women in rural Africa and in developing countries elsewhere is a steady and affordable supply of contraceptives.
And yet, as Ottawa unveils the first of its G8 maternal health programs in Africa, none so far has been dedicated to the funding of family planning services.
This is a mistake. Investing in family planning is a key and proven strategy for reducing the number of, and need for, abortions.
For every dollar a government invests in providing contraceptives, $1.40 is saved in medical costs, thanks to the prevention of unintended pregnancies, according to a new report by the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy organization for sexual and reproductive health.
The oversight is especially hard to understand because Canada wants to be regarded as a leader in global health initiatives for women and children. Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged $1.1-billion of the $5-billion funds set aside at the G8 summit in June in Huntsville, Ont. - a centrepiece effort aimed at saving the lives of 1.3 million children and 64,000 mothers. The plan contained a commitment to voluntary family planning.
Ottawa has made it clear Canada won't fund abortion services overseas. At one point, the government also appeared to rule out birth control - but then later clarified its position, which is to fund voluntary family planning. Has the government changed its mind - without consulting Canadians?
Bev Oda, the Minister of International Co-operation, acknowledged last week during a trip to Mali that cultural taboos often prevent women in West Africa from accessing contraception. But instead of funding a program to help women overcome these barriers, the Canada-Mali partnership will focus on training health workers, strengthening Mali's primary health-care system, and reducing the effects of disease on women and children.
These are all laudable goals. But birth control cannot be overlooked.
"Family planning is a core strategy in reducing maternal mortality rates. It empowers women to manage their own fertility," said Jessica Mack, with Global Health Strategies, noting that the U.S. and Europe fund family-planning services in the developing world.
If traditional cultural attitudes dissuade men from using condoms, then women can turn to other birth-control devices that do not require a man's co-operation. Canada could target programs offering better access to long-acting forms of birth control for women, such as intrauterine contraceptive devices, and injectables, such as Depo Provera.
Ms. Oda did say that Canada will encourage the use of family planning in Mali. But public education isn't enough. Supply is the main barrier. Canada must address this fundamental issue if it really wants to make a difference in the lives of women in the developing world.
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