Time for Canadian leadership on international family planning

Postmedia News


By Rathika Sitsabaiesan and Romeo Saganash

Family planning will be the focus of an important summit to be held on July 11, hosted by the U.K. government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Leaders from countries around the world will come together in London, along with civil society and the private sector, to support the right of women and girls to decide freely and for themselves whether, when and how many children they have.

The London Summit on Family Planning is an ideal forum for Canada to show much-needed political commitment and to pledge significant resources to life-saving family planning.

This summit follows on the heels of a meeting held last May in Istanbul where over 200 parliamentarians from around the world pledged a course of continued action to implement the groundbreaking Program of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). They identified the need for greater funding for sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning.

Around the world, many women — particularly young women — do not have the knowledge and tools that they need to prevent pregnancy.

Globally, over 200 million women and girls in developing countries who wish to avoid pregnancy are not using a modern, effective method of contraception.

This results in over 75 million unintended pregnancies every year. This puts women and girls at risk of death or disability during pregnancy and childbirth, including from unsafe abortion, particularly where quality of care is inadequate.

The Muskoka Initiative, created in Canada, saw us at last take a leadership role in the field of women’s sexual and reproductive rights. While other countries have been working since 2007 with full-fledged support for maternal and child health, pledging $5.3 billion to the cause in 2009 alone, Canada was virtually invisible on the issue until the 2010 G8 meeting.

The Muskoka Declaration acknowledges there is a “shared vision that major global challenges must and can be addressed effectively through focus, commitment and transparency, and in partnership with other concerned members of the global community.”

It was hoped that the G8 Muskoka Initiative would lead to substantial increases in funding for family planning to improve the health of women and children in developing countries. However, contraceptive supplies and services currently only represent a small slice of the Muskoka pie. In fact, of the about $800 million that has been allocated to the Muskoka Initiative so far, only about two per cent is devoted to family planning.

This is a very small amount given the immense unmet need for family planning globally — and the fact that, by reducing unintended pregnancies and enabling healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, contraception is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce maternal, infant and child deaths. Indeed, meeting the need for voluntary family planning would reduce the number of maternal deaths by a third.

Canada should be underscoring that women need access to a full range of modern contraceptive methods, as well as access to safe abortions where it is legal. Women also need complete and accurate information on sexual and reproductive health. Yet the Harper Conservatives, for ideological reasons, have narrowed the range of programs that can be funded through the Initiative to exclude safe abortion services. This move is short-sighted and at odds with the advice of the World Health Organization, which recognizes that if women cannot access safe services, they are likely to seek unsafe services.

The Conservatives also need to reconsider their decision to slash Canada’s official development assistance. At the meeting in Istanbul, parliamentarians recognized the overwhelming need to meet the United Nations target of allocating 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) to foreign aid. And the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently encouraged Canada to come up with a plan to meet this target. Instead, Canada is moving further and further away from this target.

In the federal budget, the Canadian government announced its intention to cut official development assistance (ODA) by close to $800 million — or 14 per cent — between now and 2015. According to the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, Canada’s aid relative to GNI will tumble 10 points between 2010 and 2015, from 0.34 per cent to 0.24 per cent. This drop in ODA will put Canada among the lowest contributors to ODA in the OECD.

Not only is Canada slashing its aid budget, it is also cutting assistance to some of the poorest countries in the world. CIDA is ending bilateral aid to five African countries — Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Niger. According to Save the Children’s Thirteenth State of the World’s Mothers Report, Niger is the worst place in the world to be a mother. CIDA is also reducing its bilateral program to Mozambique, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Just two years ago, CIDA said it was going to focus specifically on these very countries because they face the “greatest challenges in reducing maternal and child mortality.” With the resignation of CIDA Minister Bev Oda, the time is opportune. We hope the newly appointed minister for CIDA will direct funding to programs that will reduce maternal and child mortality in the countries that need it most.

Rathika Sitsabaiesan is the NDP MP for Scarborough—Rouge River, and vice-chair of the Canadian Association of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (CAPPD).
Romeo Saganash is the NDP critic for International Development and MP for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou.