Why we should allow women to make their own family planning choices

This post originally appeared on CNN’s website here.

By Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Yvonne Chaka Chaka is a South African singer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. The views expressed are her own.

Access to education, the right to make choices about your own body – these are things many of us take for granted. But the reality for many women and young people in developing countries is very different.

Denied rights to some very basic choices – such as how many children to have and when, whether to stay in school, and how to participate in their country’s economy – the story for young people is frequently one of opportunities curtailed. For some, this is about culture, custom, economics or just denial of basic human rights. For others it is as simple, yet life changing, as not having access to modern contraceptive methods.
I am in Ethiopia this week with politicians, researchers, young leaders, civil society groups and policymakers – a real mixture of organizations gathered together with one key objective – trying to change the way action is taken on access to family planning.

The International Family Planning Conference 2013 will showcase innovation and examine what needs to be done to enable nations to tackle the challenges they face. Why does this matter? Because more than 220 million women in developing countries lack access to contraceptives, information, and services.
This is a life or death crisis – complications in pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of mortality for women in Africa, meaning the issue of women’s rights over their reproductive health is absolutely central to human survival.

In my travels as a singer and a global ambassador, I’ve seen first-hand how women and young people suffer on a daily basis.

Life can be hard. Girls – some as young as 12 – are often forced to marry early. They get pregnant, and as a result are highly unlikely to return to school. These girls will lose the precious opportunities that an education affords, including the chance to advance into a skilled trade or profession. Instead, many will spend their time struggling to provide the basic food, water and shelter that their families need. With limited access to contraceptives, many girls will have more children, putting a significant strain on their health. With more mouths to feed, the pressure will grow further.

Reducing unintended pregnancies can break this cycle and give girls a better chance of staying in school. And the longer children stay in school, the higher their lifetime earnings will be, helping lift them out of poverty.

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, meaning it presents enormous challenges. Yet it has managed to achieve radical improvements in recent years thanks to its efforts on family planning and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Indeed, Ethiopia has a remarkable story to tell about its investment in health workers and the way it has delivered services in the most vulnerable of communities.

This week, I will be visiting International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Ethiopian Member Association to see first-hand how such services are on the forefront of changing lives as they work to provide sexual and reproductive health services that complement governmental efforts.

My mother taught me from a very young age that everyone can make a contribution in the world we live in, and I have been moved during my travels to see how so many are being helped to help themselves.

Globally, there are 1.8 billion adolescents standing at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood – the largest youth generation in history. Never before has the world seen such a large group of young people on the brink of their sexual and reproductive lives. And the choices this generation makes will shape not only their own lives, but will also have a direct impact on the future of their communities, their nations, and the world around them.

So we need to do more for them.

Family planning is linked to all aspects of development. It enables people. It helps them decide their own fate. Give people choices and many more will be able to live happily, freely and healthily without the pressures of poverty.

By denying women the right and ability to make their own decisions, we are penalizing entire societies. Allowing them to choose if and when they have children, and giving them the resources to do this, will more often than not mean these women will choose more for their children, not more children.

I want to shine a light – on why access to family planning matters. I pray for a world where all people, including the most vulnerable and young, are fully respected and free from violence, ill health. A place where stigma and discrimination have no place.