I started out as an organizer in the labor movement, mobilizing garment workers and trying to help people advocate for a better lot in life. Doing that work, I learned to listen to people and tried to understand where they were coming from. The work we do at Planned Parenthood is no different. Every year, three million people come to our health centers for the care they need to lead healthy, successful lives.
For too many women, men, and young people, health is determined by income, geography, or politics.
For 97 years, Planned Parenthood has been the leading women’s health care provider and advocate in the U.S.. Over the last century, we’ve seen firsthand that for women, being able to decide whether and when to have children is one of the single greatest factors in our ability to get an education, stay in school, and pursue a career.
Birth control has helped women make great strides toward economic equity in the U.S.. Research finds that availability of the pill is responsible for a third of women’s wage increases relative to men. Before the pill, women in the U.S. earned just 35 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 10 percent of doctorate degrees.
Access to birth control has turned those numbers on their head. Today, women earn more than half of undergraduate degrees, more than half of professional degrees. There are now more women than men in the U.S. workforce. We are doctors and lawyers and astronauts and senators as well as mothers.
We’ve made incredible progress – but our work isn’t done. For too many women, men, and young people, health is determined by income, geography, or politics. In order to move forward, we have to invest in the technology that will help us reach folks in areas of the country – and areas of the world – with the least access to care. Just as important, we need to invest in the next generation of young people. They are the future of this work.
I am reminded of the promise of young people every day in the U.S. – and every time I travel to visit the programs Planned Parenthood Global supports in Africa and Latin America. Our motto is “health has no borders,” and we aim to share our century of experience in the U.S. with organizations in other countries – and bring the innovative models created by our partners back to the U.S.
A few years ago, on a trip to Guatemala, I visited the Petén, a region plagued with violence from both narcos and local gangs. Planned Parenthood Global works with a community group called Tan Ux’il, which means “we are growing” in the local Mayan language. Tan Ux’il trains young people as sex educators – they are then able to teach their friends and classmates about pregnancy prevention, refer young people to local clinics, and hand out birth control in rural villages. And on Friday evenings, Tan Ux’il airs a live radio show. Between pop songs, kids from all over the region call in to ask for advice about sex and dating.
During that trip, I met a young man named José Roberto, who had joined Tan Ux’il when he was 14. In addition to working on the radio program, José Roberto trained younger members in peer education and contraceptive counseling.He then moved to Guatemala City, where he founded his own youth advocacy group, IncideJoven, which lobbies the Guatemalan government on sexual and reproductive health issues. With a decade of organizing experience and a college degree, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recruited him to run their in-country youth work.
These days, I follow on Facebook as José Roberto travels around the world sharing the success of IncideJoven and Tan Ux’il. Seeing new posts and photos inspires me to continue in the work Planned Parenthood does in the U.S. and internationally, especially reaching out to young people.
But we can’t do it alone. We need the support of governments and donors to support the provision of health care supplies and services that young people feel comfortable accessing.
The U.S. must be a leader in this fight, maintaining our role as the largest global investor in international family planning programs, expanding these investments and holding back opponents of family planning when they try to put in place harmful restrictions to these programs. We will continue to push for increased funding and better policies because we in this generation – and future generations – are worth the investment.
Cecile Richards is the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and a nationally respected leader in the field of women's health and reproductive rights in the United States.