Two Simple Words: I decide
by Alexander Sanger
I have dedicated my life to ensuring that all women — young and old, poor and wealthy, married and unmarried — would be able to say that those two words and have them ring true.
It seems simple enough. When women have the power to decide if and when to have children, their families become healthier, stronger and more economically solvent. Yet even today, in 2014, the right to decide the size of one’s family remains out of reach for far too many: worldwide, At least 200 million women want to avoid pregnancy yet lack access to modern contraception.
What would it take to shrink this number to zero? A mere $8.1 billion — or about 1 percent of what Americans spent during the 2013 holidays. But the world spends less than half that. And the root of the problem lies not only in funding, but rather, in the fact that women have not achieved real equality with men.
Last month, I had the pleasure of traveling to Bolivia, one of Latin America’s poorest countries, to meet with our local Member Association CIES. In addition to the breathtaking vistas of the world’s highest capital city La Paz, we traveled through mud and across rivers to reach small, largely indigenous communities nestled in majestic — and sometimes nearly impassable — hills of Central Bolivia.
“Many of the women you will meet have never had a menstrual period,” said CIES Executive Director Jhonny Lopez as we set out on our journey. He explained that many women living in these rural communities had given birth to as many as twelve children. A lack of access to birth control and health education was not the only problem. Many women remained pregnant at the insistence of their husbands. For many of the men in these small communities, who rely on migrant labor for their sparse incomes, pregnancy means guaranteed fidelity during the times they are away from their families.
During the two days we spent in Central Bolivia, I saw the change that CIES had brought to these rural communities. In addition to providing doctors and health supplies to these communities — for many, their only contact with the health system — a key component of CIES’ approach is education. That means breaking down the myths associated with contraception and other reproductive health issues. That means slowly chipping away at traditional gender norms and convincing husbands to let their wives be seen by a male doctor—and often, convincing women themselves. But more than anything, it means giving women the right to decide- and the right to demand a different kind of future for herself, for her family.
There are also larger political and religious forces at play in the fight for a woman’s right to decide. In the region where I work, Latin America and the Caribbean, conservative forces have for years blocked efforts to ensure universal access to low-cost reproductive health services for all who seek them. In our region, these efforts have primarily been led by the Catholic Church. While we had great hope that the Church may begin to soften given its new leadership, we have yet to see signs of retreat when it comes to our issues. Just last year, our Dominican Member Association PROFAMILIA was sued by the Catholic Church over its mass media campaign around sexuality education, contraception and sexual abuse. In the end, the court rejected the Church’s claim that the ads were in violation of the Constitution. The public and media support for PROFAMILIA during and after the meeting was massive. But it was not an easy battle.
While the battle for sexual and reproductive health and rights continues today, you can take action now to ensure that women throughout the world — from New York City to rural Bolivia — have access to the information, services and rights they need to live healthy and empowered lives.
Click here to sign our petition and let women everywhere say two simple words: I Decide.