London, UK – More than 400 global health experts, government policymakers and business officials packed the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in a monumental show of international support for family planning, pledging $4.3 billion in new funds to meet the contraceptive needs of 120 million women worldwide.
Sponsored by the Government of the United Kingdom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the London Summit on Family Planning opened with remarks from Melinda Gates, who spoke eloquently of the contraceptive needs of women she has met all over the world, and particularly the mothers of Korogocho, an urban slum in Nairobi that she visited with Jhpiego’s Jane Otai.
During that visit, she saw firsthand that women did not have access to methods of family planning because of contraceptive stock-outs, lack of service providers and intimidation and violence from husbands and partners who opposed their use of contraceptives. “During one of these conversations I had in Korogocho . . . ,” Mrs. Gates told summit participants, “one of the women stood up … her name was Mary Ann and she said, ‘You want to know why I want access to contraceptives? I want to bring every good thing to this child before I have another one.” That feeling is universal, Mrs. Gates said; it’s the reason for this meeting and the reason to expand access to family planning “so we can bring every good thing to every child.
Following her remarks, Mrs. Gates said, “Now there is a woman who introduced me to Mary Ann. She translated the conversation and she is a longstanding partner of the Foundation. Her name is Jane Otai. I am honored these days to call Jane a friend. . . Jane is living proof that an empowered woman is an engine of a better future for all of us. And I’d like to ask Jane to join us and convey what this summit means to her and to women she works with every day.”
Jane is Jhpiego’s Senior Urban Health Advisor who works on Jhpiego’s Gates-funded Urban Reproductive Health Project in Kenya. In response to Mrs. Gates’ request that Jane talk about the family planning needs of women in Africa, Jane drew from her own experience. Her poignant and gripping account of her childhood and growing up in Korogocho, her decision to use family planning and her work with Jhpiego helped set the tone for the entire meeting.
As one of seven children, growing up in Korogocho was very difficult, said Otai. Getting enough to eat was often an issue for her family and the church helped with food and her school fees. But she took inspiration from her mother.
““My mother was a role model for me. And she told me, ‘Jane you can do anything. You can become what you want to become. All you need to do is study very hard and do not get children as early as I did because that destroyed my life. . . ,’’ Otai said. “I made a decision and the decision I made was I was going to go to college and I was going to wait before I had my first child until I finished my education. And I was successful on both ends…
“Today I have three lovely children just like Melinda has and they are a joy to me,’’ said Otai.
“My son once asked me, ‘What do you do every day? Where do you go to work?’ I told him I work for Jhpiego, a good organization that has helped me go back to the community where I grew (up) to encourage girls, to encourage women in the issues of health. But most of all, these are girls who are my friends. They confide in me. They trust me. They also want to have children and space them like I do and educate them just like I am educated. I tell them that it’s possible. They can dream. They can have big dreams just like I did. All they have to do is to be very careful and to wait until they are ready to have their first pregnancy. Not to run into pregnancy because it impacts their life.
“Because somebody told me about family planning very early I was able to take it up and be able to space my children and delay my first pregnancy. And that is the reason I am here,” said Otai. “If it wasn’t for family planning, I wouldn’t be here. I would be like every other child in Korogocho. So women in Korogocho have said it very loudly and clearly that they want family planning services and I believe that today in this room you can make difference for the women living in informal settlements and in Africa to have access to family planning services.”
Later in the morning session, Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, praised Jane for her passion, commitment and ability to make her dreams come true, noting that Jane is a role model for women everywhere.
The response from many governments was indeed impressive. The Heads of State from Tanzania, Rwanda and Malawi, for example, promised to nearly double their governments’ commitment to family planning.
Numerous private corporations such as Merck & Co. and Pfizer, Inc. were present and made substantive commitments to expand women’s access to family planning. In an auxiliary session, the business community, in support of the “Every Woman Every Child” campaign, launched a new guide, Private Enterprise for Public Health: Opportunities for Businesses to Improve Women’s and Children’s Health. Published by the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, Innovation Working Group and NORAD, this document illustrates practical opportunities for companies to become more engaged in programs to improve the health of women and children.
A surprise video message from Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, left the audience spellbound when the media magnate and Johns Hopkins University graduate announced a $50 million commitment from Bloomberg Philanthropies to serve the family planning needs of women in developing countries.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Melinda Gates challenged those present to “innovate on behalf of women” to save mothers and their children.
As someone who has worked in family planning for more than 40 years, I will long remember the London Summit for the participants’ passion, the substantial commitments made and the shared dream that women all over the world in desperate need of contraception may soon be able to walk into clinics in their own neighborhoods and villages and receive the method they want.
Given that one-third of maternal deaths could be avoided if women have full access to family planning, it is our obligation and the obligations of governments the world over to make certain this happens.
The needless deaths of women must stop, and family planning is a significant way to achieve that end and “bring every good thing to every child.”
Ronald H. Magarick, PhD, is Jhpiego’sVice President, Technical Leadership Projects and Special Projects.