It’s Women’s History Month and the world is full of proclamations of support for gender equality and women’s rights. But too often, the mainstream narrative celebrating historic progress on gender issues omits abortion and contraception, discounting the fact that without them, gender equality would have been – and still is – impossible.
This year, millions of women and girls will be denied access to abortion, forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term or resort to unsafe terminations. Abortion continues to be unfairly restricted across the world, most recently in the United States, where new state bans are being introduced with the The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the legal protection of abortion introduced in the 1970s.
In the meantime, more than 200 million people who want modern contraception still do not have access to it – from women living in rural communities, where these services often do not reach, to adolescent girls or single women who face taboos about using this protection.
Stigma and misinformation shamelessly spread by anti-choice groups have resulted in laws that criminalize abortion, suppression of accurate sexual health information, and a culture of shame and silence around people’s reproductive choices. . Marginalized, rural and low-income communities that cannot access private health care or travel to obtain services are the most affected.
Consequently, only 57 percent of women worldwide make their own informed decisions about sexuality and reproductive health. How do we achieve equality when we are denied control over our own bodies and health care and when our access to essential and life-saving health services is restricted? It can not be.
This is why the lack of support for universal access to reproductive health care, including abortion and contraception, renders global efforts to promote gender equality fallacious.
Gender equality requires access to contraception and safe abortion because without it, women’s lives are at stake. In Addis Ababa, where I grew up, I saw first hand what what a lack of access to reproductive health information and services can do.
A person I knew committed suicide after becoming pregnant because she did not know where to turn. Another girl disappeared from class one day, never to return; we then heard rumors that she had ingested bleach in an attempt to terminate her pregnancy. To this day, I don’t know if she lived or died.
The situation today is not too different. Across Africa and Latin America, about three quarters abortions are risky; Worldwide, nearly half of abortions are performed using unsafe methods. Women who have unsafe abortions risk devastating complications for their long-term health – and their lives.
But access to abortion and contraception goes far beyond immediate life-saving health care. As Africa Director of MSI Reproductive Choices, I help women and girls make informed decisions about their bodies and their futures, and I’ve come to realize that the power of reproductive choice lies in its ripple effect.
It is inextricably linked to helping girls pursue education and women pursue careers; it breaks cycles of poverty and encourages women’s political and economic participation. All of these contribute to advancing gender equality and support several global development goals.
Take education, for example. By increasing adolescents’ access to these healthcare options, millions more girls could stay in school. Unfortunately, without them, so many girls are deprived of the opportunity to complete their education. Every year in sub-Saharan Africa up to four million teenage girls drop out of school because of pregnancy. In Niger, only one in 100 the girls will finish secondary school. Just one extra year of education can increase a girl’s future earnings by up to 20 percent and we should do everything we can to make that happen.
Education provides women with opportunities for financial independence, another prerequisite for gender equality. When a woman controls her own fertility, it can break the cycle of poverty and transform her life, her family and the world. Women’s equal participation in the economy has the potential to boost global gross domestic product (GDP) by $28 trillion.
On the other hand, denying someone an abortion can create economic hardship for years. Research found that women in the United States who were unable to access an abortion experienced increased household povertydebt and the likelihood of bankruptcy and eviction.
Education and economic stability help people become leaders, create social change and exercise political power – activities still disproportionately performed by men. And for a woman, these are inextricably linked to her ability to access reproductive health care on her own terms.
I often think back to the girls I went to school with—whose unwanted pregnancies ended their lives—and imagine how things would have turned out differently had they had access to contraception or medical care. safe abortion. They might have continued their education, decided on their personal goals and careers, led change within their communities, and had children if or when it suited them.
We can do better for the next generation of women and girls. As we continue the crucial work of advancing women’s rights and expanding access to modern contraception to all who want it, abortion must also be front and center. We should talk more about abortion because it’s normal. We need to fund and invest in abortion because it is health care. And we need to break down barriers to abortion because it’s a human right.
It is clear that the path to gender equality is paved by access to abortion and contraception.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.