Keeping our promise to 120 million women and girls means a better future for everyone

This week was a first for me — never before have I had to change my plans because of a volcano. You may have heard about the ash cloud above Mount Rinjani that closed Bali airport in Indonesia for several days. Well, it not only stranded thousands of tourists, it meant a hugely important conference on family planning was postponed.

I was really disappointed. A lot of people had worked incredibly hard to put on a successful event. Even more frustrating is that we have so much to do, and so little time — and this was our opportunity to accelerate progress.

It may not seem like it to those of us for whom deciding if and when to have children — or how many to have — involves little more than a trip to the doctor or the pharmacy. But for many women and girls there is, in the words of a young woman I met recently in Niger, no other option but to hope and pray.

Sushma Devi

You get a glimpse of just how much is at stake when you look through the eyes of two young women in Bihar, India. Sushma Devi and Manju Devi don’t only share a last name. They are also both married, mothers, in their late 20s, from poor families and rural communities. They live about 20 miles from each other — but their lives are worlds apart.

Manju Devi

Sushma is a social worker with one child, a five year old son, whom she had after completing her education. Her life is full of optimism and opportunity. Manju, who is two years younger than Sushma, is a mother of five children aged from 2 to 10. She was married at 15 or 16 — she doesn’t quite remember — has no education, no job, and in her own view not much hope either.

There’s one other significant difference between them: Sushma had access to family planning advice and contraception from an early age. Manju did not.

Their stories support what all the data shows. That when women can plan and space their pregnancies, they are better able to raise healthier families and continue to make an economic contribution. Over time, this all adds up to stronger communities and stronger countries.

That’s why three years ago, the world made a commitment to an ambitious goal. More than that, we made a promise. A promise to 120 million women and girls that by 2020 they would have access to family planning services and contraceptives if they wanted it.

In the time since, millions of unintended pregnancies have been avoided and thousands of lives saved. That’s great news — but to keep our promise, we need to do much more and we need to do it now.

For our part, the Foundation is investing an additional $120 million over the next three years. More money will go into advocacy — to keep family planning firmly on the agenda. Resources will also be devoted to improve the quality of services women and girls receive. And we will fund expansions of proven urban health programs across more parts of Africa and Asia.

We are at a critical moment. Sushma and Manju represent the two futures that lie ahead of us: One is full of promise, the other is a broken promise. The International Conference on Family Planning may have been put off, but 120 million women and girls can’t wait for us to act.