This is the product of hard-won progress in health and development, which should be recognized and celebrated. Improvements in maternal and child health mean that a baby born today is expected to live on average to at least 72 years, an increase of a decade in the last 40 years alone.
At the same time, entrenched and growing inequalities persist both within and between countries. Life expectancy in the least developed countries lags more than 7 years behind the global average and is around 20 years less than that of high income countries. These stark inequalities are exacerbated by accelerating social, economic, political, and environmental crises, which disproportionately impact populations and communities that are already underserved and compound their needs and vulnerabilities.
As I travel to Thailand for the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP), which coincides with this historic milestone, these issues are front of mind.
Since 2009, ICFP has played a pivotal role in uniting the global development community around a shared vision of universal access to family planning—recognizing the many and multiplying benefits to individuals, families, and communities when people are able to choose, freely and for themselves, whether, when, and how many children to have.
As we convene for the first time in four years, we will celebrate achievements that enable people to have choice, convenience, and control over their reproductive lives. But we also recognize that significant work lies ahead. There remains a vast unmet need for high quality, voluntary, and rights-based information, services, and supplies—including for contraception, safe abortion, HIV/STI prevention, maternal and newborn health, and sexuality education.
Worryingly, the sexual and reproductive health, rights, and choices of people around the world are under increasing threat from ideologically-driven forces seeking to roll back hard-won gains, slash funding for life-saving services, and remove references to sexual and reproductive health and rights from international agreements.
And these inequalities extend well beyond sexual and reproductive health. For example:
- Today, the largest generation of adolescents, 1.8 billion people aged 10–24 years, presents an unprecedented opportunity to advance social, economic, and environmental progress for current and future generations. However, large disparities in school enrollment and retention rates and in education quality exist between girls and boys, and between rich and poor, both within and between countries. COVID-19 has laid bare how we continue to fail our children and young people, with school closures and other disruptions leading to profound learning loss, social isolation, poor mental health, among other negative outcomes.
- Systems of restrictive societal norms continue to undermine efforts to achieve gender equality. Nearly one in three women experience sexual and gender-based violence in their life; early and forced child marriage and female genital mutilation and cutting remain common practices; women have fewer economic opportunities and continue to be paid less than men; and sexual and gender-minority groups experience stigma, discrimination, criminalization, and violence.
- The climate crisis disproportionately impacts populations that have contributed the least to the crisis (in consumption and emissions) yet are most vulnerable because they are poor, live in high-risk areas, and have limited social capital and inadequate access to resources—all of which makes it harder for them to cope in the short-term and adapt over the long-term. For similar reasons, women and adolescent girls are disproportionately affected by environmental changes and the climate crisis.
November 2022 also commemorates a significant milestone in the history of the Population Council: our 70th anniversary. Since our founding in 1952, the Population Council has been at the forefront of advancing family planning and reproductive health, including unparalleled contributions to developing multiple methods of contraception used by over 170 million women around the world.
In the intervening years, our work has expanded and evolved—from influencing the global agenda on adolescent girls to conducting research to reduce harmful gender norms and practices, responding to pandemics and humanitarian emergencies, and building a global body of evidence on how climate change is impacting the health and well-being of populations around the world.
Through our Strategic Plan 2023-2023, we are sharpening our focus to advance four global goals that reflect the urgent problems the world faces:
- Ensuring sexual and reproductive health, rights, and choices
- Empowering adolescents and young people to reach their full potential
- Achieving gender equality and equity
- Pursuing justice in the face of climate and environmental changes
We recognize that these four goals are inextricably intertwined; fulfilling one advances the others and failing on one undermines progress on all.
At ICFP, I look forward to drawing energy and inspiration from a network of advocates, researchers, community and government leaders, practitioners, and civil society members—all united by the belief that everyone deserves universal access to high-quality, voluntary family planning.
In parallel, as the world reaches a historic population of 8 billion, and the Population Council enters its eighth decade, we renew our commitment to generate ideas, produce evidence, and design solutions to fulfill the possibility of an equitable and sustainable future for everyone, everywhere.