Access to contraception, as a human right that is universal and indivisible, has long been recognised. It is at the core of reproductive rights. The international instruments such as International Conference on Population Development Programme of Action (ICPD-PoA), Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) are some landmark achievements. Despite that universal access to contraception, especially for women and girls, is far from achieved.
The International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) 2018, has provided the space for diverse stakeholders on family planning to come together to discuss the issue in the current context, to share challenges, gaps as well as recommendations. It has successfully brought together more than 600 young people and engaged them in meaningful ways. A discourse around the cost of inaction towards universal access to contraception has been featured in a record number of plenaries as well as parallel sessions. Investing in access to contraceptive services for a lifetime of return is important. However, this discourse has to be within the framework of human rights. It is important to ensure that bodily autonomy and choice of women and girls are not compromised.
The diverse platform of the ICFP brought together different stakeholders working on the access to contraception: states, service providers, researchers, technology creators, NGOs and donors. More strikingly, a number of states continued to make presentations, which explicitly used the language of family planning as a measure to control population. State agendas of political marginalisation stand to be perpetrated through such population control measures. Such controls are not just imposed by states but also by religious authorities and families. When the power of the state is vested in these controls, they can gain tremendous achievements in numbers, but these numbers need to be interrogated. We need to ask at what cost?
This is most common in countries with conflict, specially between and among different ethnic groups. Women are either forced to sterilise or abort, through imposition of the population control measures or are against using contraception, and to give birth with little spacing in order to increase certain groups of population. Such control is perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. It gravely risks the lives and the health of women and girls. In Myanmar where ethnic communities are facing conflict, young people and women are discouraged from using contraception. Instead, having children is promoted. While on the other hand in 2013, Myanmar reaffirmed the 1994 discriminatory “Two-Child Policy” on Rohingya families of the Rakhine State, in addition to the 2005 Population Control measures that enforced the use of contraceptives by Rohingya families. These policies have led women to seek unsafe abortions endangering their physical and mental wellbeing. During the civil war in Sri Lanka, the LTTE forced women against using contraception and to give birth, with very little spacing, to increase the Tamil population. In post-conflict Sri Lanka, Tamil women in the Kilinochchi district had to undergo coercive population control through sterilisation that put their lives at risk.
A space like ICFP can strive to provide the emergence of voices of communities of women and girls served by these policies and services. The narrative of women and girls can send powerful reminders to member states on their successes and their failures. The achievement of numbers needs to be kept in tandem with the achievement in reproductive rights and choices for women and girls.