Editor’s Note: Seema Jalan is the executive director of the UN Foundation’s Universal Access Project, which works to empower girls and women by improving their access to reproductive health and family-planning services globally. The opinions expressed are hers.
In a lot of ways, I have Margaret Sanger to thank for my career success.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the birth control she championed became legal, transforming women’s lives and America’s economy.
As women just like me had increased access to contraception, they were able to control and delay childbirth and invest in their education and careers, increasing their earning power and growing the national economy. In fact, one-third of the wage gains American women have made since the 1960s are a result of access to birth control.
In many so-called “Asian Tiger” economies – including Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore – rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s was also tied to investments in voluntary family planning, which allowed the countries’ youth to plan their families, invest in their education and contribute to the labor force.
The return on investment in birth control is clear for women in the US and abroad. That’s why, for 50 years, the US was one of the largest funders of international reproductive health and family planning. So why – after decades of global progress has been made – is the US rolling back one of its highest-return global investments?
By reinstating and massively expanding the Global Gag Rule in January 2017, defunding the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) just a few months later, and proposing to cut funding for international reproductive health and family planning in half – what would be a more than $300 million decline – the Trump administration has created a perfect storm that jeopardizes the health and rights of millions of the world’s most marginalized women and families and threatens global economic progress.
The impacts are devastating. In Uganda, hundreds of thousands of women stand to lose access to antenatal care, cancer screenings, reproductive health, family planning and HIV treatment under the expanded Global Gag Rule; and in Kenya, outreach services reaching more than 75,000 women have already been terminated.
Among those most harmed by the funding gap that UNFPA faces are those in the face of humanitarian crises – pregnant and nursing women in the Rohingya refugee crisis and the civil war-torn countries of Yemen and Syria.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Clearly, the actions underway by the current administration represent a monumental step backward in our standing as a global health leader and will grind to a halt the ripple effect of growth and prosperity that is sparked when women can plan their families and their futures.
Women who choose to become mothers should have the ability to plan for healthy, well-educated children, leading to more resilient, prosperous families; thriving societies; and growing economies. As Melinda Gates said, “No country in the last 50 years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives.”
Women’s access to birth control is not only a fundamental human right, it is one of the best investments we can make in the world’s future. It pays off in the short term with savings in other health care areas; research shows that every additional dollar spent on contraceptives reduces the cost of pregnancy-related care by $2.20, and this cost-saving extends to other sectors including education, nutrition, health, housing and sanitation.
It also pays off in the long term by unlocking the economic potential of a country’s women and youth. In fact, if women participated in the economy at the same level as men, we would add up to an estimated $28 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. That’s a 26% increase – roughly equivalent to the annual GDP of the US and China combined.
But in the past year, US policymakers have taken drastic steps backward that will cut this progress off at the knees – trapping women, families, and countries in poverty. It may seem worlds away, but there is no doubt that this rollback will impact us here at home as the lowest-income countries around the world lose the broad returns on our global family-planning investments.
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Make no mistake: The decisions of a few right here in Washington are having a profound impact on the most disadvantaged women around the world. But all of us will – quite literally – pay the price.