“No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body. A woman must have the fundamental freedom to choose whether she will or will not be a mother, and how many children she will have.” – Margaret Sanger, Birth Control pioneer who opened America’s first contraceptive clinic in 1916. 

This World Population Day, access to family planning is a women’s rights issue that we should all STAND up for. 

World Population Day calls on leaders, institutions, policymakers, civil society and others to help make reproductive health and rights a reality for everyone. Women’s education and livelihood, in particular, can be severely impacted by a lack of access to family planning. According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA): “when women and couples are empowered to plan whether and when to have children, women are better enabled to complete their education; women’s autonomy within their households is increased, and their earning power is improved”

As a result, ensuring women’s reproductive rights and their access to reproductive health services is essential to attaining gender equality.

This year’s World Population Day theme relates to the unfinished business of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) (Cairo, 1994) which formally recognised that reproductive health and gender equality are essential for sustainable development. At the ICPD, 179 governments called for access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including voluntary family planning, safe pregnancy, and childbirth services for all, and the treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted infections.  The important linkages between reproductive health and women’s empowerment were also acknowledged. 

Since the ICPD, voluntary access to modern contraception has increased by 25%, and the quality of family planning services have improved. However, hundreds of millions of women are still not using modern contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Furthermore, the UNFPA says there are around 214 million women worldwide who want to avoid pregnancy but don’t have access to contraception. While preventable maternal deaths have declined by over 40%, the ICPD’s target of reducing maternal mortality to below 75 per 100,000 live births is far from being reached. There have been also concerted global efforts to end female genital mutilation and child marriage – yet, the total number of women and girls affected by these harmful practices has actually increased as the result of population growth.

Irish women have direct experience of these issues as contraception was illegal in the Republic of Ireland from 1935-1980 in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. On World Population Day, we can celebrate the landmark Contraceptive Train event of 1971 when members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement travelled to Belfast to purchase contraceptives in order to protest the law prohibiting the sale and importation of contraceptives in the Republic. The event made a powerful statement and helped to raise awareness of the issues surrounding women’s rights and contraception. The eventual legalisation of contraception was an important breakthrough in women’s rights as it finally allowed Irish women to take control of their fertility. However, the fact that Ireland still charges women for birth control remains controversial (particularly as it is free in many parts of the world) and the National Women’s Council of Ireland has recently called on the Irish Government to commit to free contraception in Budget 2020. 

To keep up to date with latest developments regarding free contraception in Ireland please visit https://www.nwci.ie/

To find out more about World Population Day please visit https://www.un.org/en/events/populationday/

Photo: Photo by Chayene Rafaela via Unsplash

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