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Reproductive Health Security Empowers Women’s Choices

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 8 2011 (IPS) - Each day, one thousand women die in childbirth and one million people become infected with sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including 7,000 cases of HIV. Yet these numbers are preventable, experts insist, when countries possess the resources and willpower to address and deal with them.

Dignitaries and high-level officials gathered this week to discuss reproductive health commodity security (RHCS), or, simply put, ensuring that people have access to essentials of reproductive health including contraceptives and drugs for safer maternal health and childbirth.

Sponsored by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the two-day conference underscored the importance of reproductive and sexual health, especially in developing countries, to improve public health and quality of life as well as to empower girls and women.

RHCS is akin to the concept of food security, explained Jagdish Upadhyay, chief of UNFPA’s Commodity Security Branch, meaning that these commodities need to be consistently available and affordable to communities rich and poor, in areas urban and rural, to the educated and the undereducated.

Technology has made a remarkable difference in many countries to improve governments’ management of multiple aspects of reproductive health. CHANNEL is one such programme that been installed in countries such as Madagascar, Senegal and Sudan, enabling them to better track storage levels of contraceptives and medicines, so that when stock levels run low they are replenished.

A consensus from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo declared that reproductive health was a basic human right. In order to transform such a concept into reality, however, states must build the infrastructure that allows all individuals to obtain and use their choice of affordable quality productive health supplies whenever they need them, said Dr. Kechi Ogbuagu, a technical adviser to the Commodity Security Branch in UNFPA.

A starting point for global health and development

Security for reproductive health commodities is viewed as an area essential to human and economic development. It is “one element of many other processes that are going on that are all contributing to similar outcomes to improve the health and the lives of women and children,” said Julia Bunting of the UK’s Department for International Development, during a presentation to dignitaries and officials.

Closely connected to public health, healthcare systems, women’s rights, education, and several other areas marked crucial as priorities for development in the developing world, establishing RHCS can help begin or contribute to development in those areas for several reasons.

Ideally, not only does reproductive health security rely upon infrastructure that can serve other health needs, but it also demands that communities engage with the topic of sexual and reproductive health, altering social and cultural dynamics and empowering women by allowing them to take charge of when they want children, and how many.

“Reproductive health commodity security is a tool, a tool for ensuring that we’re going to empower women to make choices for themselves,” Babtunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA, told IPS.

The point at which women can make those choices “almost always correspondents to economic development” because it reflects the level of education and empowerment those women have, he said.

“Women are drivers of the economy in many developing countries,” he added.

Experts acknowledged, however, that despite the multiple benefits RHCS carries, many countries still have a way to go before they enjoy them or before they have security in reproductive health commodities.

UNFPA estimates that 215 million women in the developing world have an unmet need for. These women qualify as having “unmet need” because they want to delay or avoid pregnancy yet use traditional and less effective methods of contraception, or none at all.

UNFPA has also noted areas of success, citing work by its Global Programme to Enhance Reproductive Health Commodity Security, a framework to assist countries and provide them with support. In Ethiopia, the contraceptive prevalence rate rose from six percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2009.

Challenges to RHCS

Though some countries have demonstrated, measurable success in RHCS, speakers and officials acknowledged the many challenges that lie ahead in securing reproductive health commodities, especially for communities in developing countries.

Challenges tend to vary from country to country, said Osotimehin, but some parallels include cultural or political “gatekeepers” who can either hinder or facilitate the ability to make their own choices, governments who don’t pay health commodities the necessary attention or resources, and health systems that don’t work.

Public health sustainability derives from governments’ putting domestic resources to reproductive commodities on a continual basis, Osotimehin elaborated. If governments don’t contribute the necessary resources or political will, change – ranging from cultural norms and beliefs to health infrastructure – will be quite limited.

Speakers emphasised the fact that unmet need is greater in rural or poor areas and populations with lower levels of education, where social and cultural norms may threaten open discussion or action towards ensuring RHCS.

Experts also noted that additional financial resources are always needed for RHCS.

In spite of the challenges ahead, Osotimehin stressed that RHCS was absolutely crucial and one of the most important issues countries could focus on. “It saves lives, and it helps people to develop,” he concluded.

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