My father died when I was 27. I was devastated: he had been an incredible source of love and encouragement in my life, as well as inspiration. In 1976 he and my mother moved our family from the Soviet Union to the U.S., hoping to find the economic opportunity and political freedom that were unavailable in our homeland. His tireless work ethic helped carry my mother and me out of our cockroach-ridden first apartment in Chicago and into eventual prosperity. And he always told me that I, too, could follow my dreams and bring about a better life for myself.
I look at my daughters and feel tremendous urgency about giving them the information, the resources, and the empowerment they need not just to survive in today’s world, but to thrive…We should feel such urgency for all of the world’s women.
Losing my father also left me with an important decision to make. In 1986 he had founded Lifeway Foods, the first Soviet immigrant-owned company to go public in the U.S., and it had been performing well under his leadership. But his death left a void at the head of the company. I had the education and experience I needed to step into his shoes – but I also had the desire to become a mother.
I was seriously considering having children at the time, and knew I couldn't do so while taking over a fast-paced and still growing company. It would put my new responsibilities as a mother and a business leader in direct, painful conflict with each other.
But I also knew of an alternative to choosing between one path and the other: I could delay my pregnancies. Because I am lucky enough to live in a country that provides access to family planning services, I could choose to have children after making sure my father's business continued to thrive. That alternative was the course I chose. And after seven years of leading Lifeway Foods, I had Leah and Misha – two wonderful daughters I was eager to love and share my life with.
Waiting to have children until you are ready should be an option for every woman in the world. But it's not – in fact, there are roughly 222 million women who want access to voluntary family planning services and aren't currently using any form of contraception. Most of them live in developing countries, and face significant health risks from pregnancy due to a lack of resources, medical services, and social support. There are also huge risks for mothers who aren't even women yet. A staggering 14 million girls under age 18 are married off in developing countries each year, well before their bodies and minds are ready for sex and childbearing. That's 38,000 girls each day.
If they had been born in the developing world, Leah and Misha could be two of those girls. Instead, they are in school – happy, safe, and well supplied with books they are already learning to read. They get vaccinations at regular checkups, hear stories about the birds and the bees, and receive the entry-level sexual and reproductive health care information that every child deserves. They will eventually know how to avoid pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, and have access to information and contraceptives that will give them options in their lives beyond childbearing.
I cannot express how relieved I am that Leah and Misha are growing up with the same freedom of choice that I myself had, a freedom made possible by voluntary family planning services. They can pursue their education, interests and careers for however long they like. And, if they want to have children, they can make the call about when and how many children to have.
Why is it not national U.S. policy to make sure that every woman and girl in the world has this freedom? Research has shown that investing in the education, safety, and reproductive health of women and girls such as Leah and Misha reaps significant benefits not just for them, but also for their entire societies. Girls and women who have access to voluntary family planning services are able to stay in school, increasing their earning power and their ability to support their communities and their countries as well as their families. Governments and aid organizations, however, still do not prioritize family planning as one of the most important development needs.
The decision-makers among those groups need to hear about the benefits of access to voluntary family planning services as well as the dangers that plague women in its absence. And they need to understand why we care about it: For every woman in the world, whether she is a 27-year-old business leader or a 13-year-old schoolgirl, whether she grew up in Chicago or in Addis Ababa, the issue of family planning is a deeply personal one.
I look at my daughters and feel tremendous urgency about giving them the information, the resources, and the empowerment they need not just to survive in today's world, but to thrive – to chart their own paths and create, as I did, the life they want with the help of voluntary family planning services. We should feel such urgency for all of the world's women. We owe it to them.
Julie Smolyansky, a member of the United Nations Foundation's Global Entrepreneurs Council, is president and CEO of Lifeway Foods Inc., the largest manufacturer of kefir products in the United States.