Commentary: Does Access to Contraception Empower Women?

Article Date

11 July 2011

Article Author

By Kirsten Stoebenau and Anju Malhotra

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Does Access to Contraception Empower Women?Empowering women – that is, creating conditions that build their confidence, self-reliance and ability to make strategic life choices – is increasingly seen as a key to achieving broad international development goals. Indeed, research and policy in the field have coalesced around the importance of women’s empowerment to fostering economic prosperity, healthy communities and more equitable relationships. And studies show that when women are able to take control of their lives, others benefit – their children are educated and healthier, their families more financially stable.

Such positive outcomes of empowering women can come from a variety of opportunities, such as completing secondary school and earning money. But a crucial contribution to women’s empowerment that’s missing from the global dialogue on the issue is the role that increased access to contraception and reductions in family size in low- and middle-income countries play toward empowering women and transforming gender inequalities. At ICRW, we believe this is one of the most important considerations of this century — the world is finally poised to not only address the needs of women as 50 percent of humanity, but also to realize their contributions to a more productive, egalitarian and sustainable planet.

Over the past several decades, debates about the role of family planning programs have evolved. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the main emphasis was on the role of family planning in lowering fertility levels and stabilizing population growth, as a route to sustainable development. In the 1990s, the integration of women’s reproductive health and rights into the delivery of family planning services gained importance. As we progress in the new millennium, both these issues remain relevant, but family planning programs have the potential to play an even larger role in creating social change.

Today, most women around the globe want to have fewer children than they did 40 years ago. This is evidenced by the dramatic decline in the average family size in many countries worldwide – often a result of women’s voluntary use of contraception. For example, in 1960, the average Egyptian woman had 6.6 children, while in 2008, she had only three. That same year, 60 percent of women used contraception, compared to 25 percent in 1970. Similarly in Colombia, the average woman had 6.7 children in 1960, whereas in 2009, she had only 2.4. And while in 2005, 78 percent of Colombian women used contraception, only 21 percent did in 1970, according to UN Women’s Indicators and Statistics Database.

These changes may have profound consequences for women’s lives and position in society. A woman who can choose from easily accessible, widely available contraceptive methods to control when and how many children she has could be better poised to take on roles outside of the domestic sphere. Having such control may also lead to less stringent gendered roles and norms within households. Access to contraception may also contribute to the increasing number of women worldwide who are becoming educated and joining the labor force or becoming civic and political leaders.

But we don’t yet have the evidence to prove this, and that gap in knowledge was the impetus for the newly-formed Fertility & Empowerment Network, a group of academic and applied researchers housed at ICRW. Through theoretical and empirical research, the network is charged with investigating the point we raised earlier: Does access to family planning and giving birth to fewer children empower the world’s women and equalize their relationships with men? The network is encouraging other researchers and advocates of family planning, women’s empowerment and poverty reduction to dig into this question, too.

Our initial analysis suggests that as fertility declines and contraceptive use increases, daughters become as valued as sons in traditionally patriarchal families, parents invest more in their daughters’ education and the gap between spouses’ ages and education narrows, which implies more equity in marital partnerships. If our early analyses are confirmed, we believe it will mean that improving access to voluntary, high quality family planning care can further contribute to a world where women are as educated, as financially stable and as valued as men. 

Kirsten Stoebenau is a gender and population specialist, and Anju Malhotra is vice president of research, innovation and impact at ICRW.