I visited Nigeria three years ago with the United Nations Foundation to see local health care practitioners learn how to administer measles vaccines — something we in the United States take for granted. While there, I learned about another life-saving service that almost 60 percent of the women in Nigeria wanted but could not get access to: voluntary family planning services.
One of the most important and compassionate ways we can create a sustainable future is to empower women and adolescent girls.
Those women are part of 222 million women around the globe who want to determine the number, spacing, and timing of their children, but who do not currently have access to contraceptives.
People know that vaccines save lives. But do they know that family planning services also save lives? In developing countries, one out of every 120 women dies from pregnancy or childbirth complications; in sub-Saharan Africa, it's one out of every 31 women. The lack of access to family planning services and education causes an estimated 600,000 newborn deaths and at least 150,000 maternal deaths annually.
Meeting the demand for family planning services would substantially reduce those alarming mortality rates. It would also improve maternal and newborn health, lower pregnancy rates among adolescent girls, reduce the spread of HIV through unintended pregnancies, and cause a 70 percent drop in abortions in developing countries.
Research has also linked family planning to increased social and economic opportunities for women, and more prosperous and sustainable communities. When women receive access to safety and family planning services, they stay in school longer, which increases their earning power. Girls with more education are more likely to postpone marriage until their bodies are mature and they can better provide for children. They are also more aware of the legal rights and social resources available to them - and of the political events that affect their communities and countries. Just one year of schooling raises girls' and women's knowledge of nutrition, health care and environmental conservation. They can create change - in helping to provide for their families, strengthening their communities, and protecting the natural world around them.
But despite the clear threats posed by the lack of family planning services and the clear benefits reaped from offering them, governments and development organizations alike are not prioritizing family planning. Donor countries haven't offered anything close to the funds they could and should contribute to meet the global unmet need. That includes the U.S. government. While the U.S. is the largest global provider of international family planning and reproductive health services, it still gives far less than it could. Additionally, laws in developing countries that ban child marriage and domestic violence – both of which regularly cause unwanted pregnancies – are routinely unenforced.
I grew up in a family motivated to make a difference. My father, Ted Turner, started CNN and has spent his adult life working for environmental preservation and social justice. His enthusiasm for those causes permeated my childhood, inspiring me for my own work of supporting organizations that are working to create a healthy and sustainable world for our children and future generations.
One of the most important and compassionate ways we can create a sustainable future is to empower women and adolescent girls. I'm supporting organizations that are working to bring more family planning services to women around the world and those that educate the public about the need for those services. This stems from my deep conviction that access to those services should never be a privilege; it should be a right of all women.
Join me in raising your voice to make that right a reality for all the world's women. When they can plan their pregnancies, they'll also have the power to do so much more – for themselves, for their families and for the world around them.
Laura Turner Seydel is an international environmental advocate and eco-living expert dedicated to creating a healthy and sustainable future for our children.