Excellencies, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is an honor to be here with you on the eve of this important conference on voluntary family planning.
I would like to extend a special thank you to the Government of Ethiopia for hosting this event.
Any leader will tell you that youth are the key to the future. Today, the world is blessed with the largest generation of young people in human history – a blessing that brings both challenges and opportunities. Most of these youth live in the developing world.
Here in Ethiopia, more than 65 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 30, a staggering statistic that is also shared to some degree by many other countries represented in this room.
The reproductive decisions these young people make will mean the difference between prosperity and poverty—for these youth, for their families, and for their nations. As government leaders we all have a responsibility to invest in our youth in order to ensure sustainable development and to help youth and their countries toward a future that promises hope and opportunity.
As President Obama noted in his June 2013 address to Young African Leaders: “In terms of human capital and young people, I think there is no doubt that the most important investment any country can make – not just an African country – is educating its youth and providing them the skills they need to compete in a highly technological advanced world economy – countries that do not do that well will not succeed.”
Despite challenges, universal access to reproductive health – that is meeting the unmet need of women who want modern contraceptive methods so they can time and space their families – is an achievable goal and a powerful means to dramatically improve the life and health of women and children. It is also an important step in reducing poverty, driving economic growth and strengthening nations.
When women are empowered to plan their families and space childbirth, they are also empowered to improve their financial future. A woman who can delay childbearing so she can earn a college degree or complete high school is empowered to maximize her earning potential. That is a force multiplier.
She will be better able to provide for her family and to ensure that her own children have the best opportunities for quality healthcare and higher education. She will also be able to plan how many children she wants, thereby balancing her interests in raising a family with the need to advance economically. I am saying that voluntary family planning is ultimately an essential component of long-term, sustained economic growth. This is true both on an individual level and a family level. And when you have many families and individuals empowered to make family planning decisions, the country ultimately benefits in the form of broad-based economic growth, a productive and educated workforce, and a growing middle class.
What does this mean at the national level? Let me single out Kenya for a minute. Since the country began investing in family planning programs in the mid-1970s, average life expectancy has increased, school attendance among 6 to 15 year olds has grown to almost 89% of the population, and the gross national income has risen from $350 per person in 1975 to $1,230 per person in 2005. Child and maternal mortality have decreased; and more women have entered the labor force. And the benefits continue to accrue.
Ethiopia has had equally impressive achievements. Use of voluntary family planning has gone from 6% in 2000 to 28% in only ten (10) years. This investment certainly contributed to the Government of Ethiopia’s success in meeting its Millennium Development Goal Four (4), reducing mortality in children under five (5) in half during the same period. Economic growth in the country during this same period has been very strong, and school enrollment is now almost universal.
Consider one of the findings recently released by the United Nations in its “Motherhood in Childhood” report: “The lifetime opportunity cost related to adolescent pregnancy – measured by the mother’s foregone annual income over her lifetime – ranges from 1 percent of annual GDP in China to 30 percent of annual GDP in Uganda.” Some of the fastest growing economies in the world today are in East Asia and Latin America – countries that were among the poorest in the world just 40 to 50 years ago. A distinguishing common feature of these countries today is that the working age population, those between the ages of 15 and 64, is much larger than the dependent population, meaning the very young and the elderly.
A large workforce with fewer children translates into increased savings on health care and other social services, increased investments in each child, increased output, productivity, and investments – meaning that nations can dramatically increase their economic potential.
When coupled with prudent economic and labor policies, the demographic pattern can add as much as two percent to annual GDP growth for decades. This phenomenon is known as the demographic dividend.
Countries currently enjoying this “dividend” are doing so because they made decisions decades ago to improve child survival, expand access to voluntary family planning, and to educate girls.
Those efforts led to changes in age structure, smaller desired family size, educed unintended pregnancies, and greater investments in human capital that increased their working age population and elevated productivity.
I would also note that the inverse is true. Countries can implement robust, visionary development programs aimed at propelling economies forward, but if those efforts are not accompanied by similar efforts focused on youth, the net economic gains will be negligible. The economy will grow, but per capita GDP and social indicators will essentially flat-line.
I think we all can agree that empowering women and supporting family planning initiatives are undamental economic development strategies. Before I close, I would like to highlight one other important aspect of this issue, namely reproductive rights.
It is essential that we focus on addressing health inequities. And for the most vulnerable – women and girls – this means we must focus on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as a priority issue. In doing so however, we must make sure that we incorporate a “rights-based” perspective into policies for women and girls, especially for those living in the lowest income countries, where the largest gaps exist in reaching the MDGs.
There’s a lot of support for the notion that in order to reach the development goals that rest on the advancement of women’s empowerment as their foundation, such as Millennium Development Goal 5 which seeks to improve maternal health and provide universal access to reproductive health, we must articulate and emphasize the centrality of sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights to achieving our development goals.
As you all know all too well, mortality and morbidity related to sexual and reproductive health, particularly for women and adolescent girls, are still unacceptably high in many regions of the world. This is a tragedy on the personal, local, and global level because maternal related death and injury keeps families, communities, and countries from progress and prosperity that would be otherwise achievable. It also has a negative downstream impact on our ability to reach our other development goals.
I want to assure you that the Obama Administration understands that these illnesses and deaths occur in the prime years of life, and have life-long on sequences for women and girls, and their families, who suffer the direct health and economic consequences.
We must continue to promote sexual and reproductive health, including universal access to voluntary family planning as life-saving interventions that are essential for promoting health, economic growth, and development across the globe, and ultimately, for ensuring that all women are able to exercise their reproductive rights.
There is an undeniable link between a women’s ability to control her own fertility and her ability to achieve autonomy, the link between autonomy and women’s empowerment, and the implications of these relationships for the rate of population growth, and the ability to reach development goals. Improving access to reproductive health services, including voluntary family planning creates a beneficial ripple effect and is a necessary ingredient to helping women care for their families, support their communities, and build their countries. As the U.S. government and many of your governments and organizations reaffirmed last summer during the London Family Planning Summit, helping women in the developing world to have the same access to lifesaving contraceptives as those in the developed world must be a central priority.
For many women, the inability to access modern contraceptives can cost them their lives. One of the key goals of the Obama Administration’s Global Health Initiative is to help young women and girls dramatically improve their life chances through delaying the age of first pregnancy, because we understand that families, communities, and nations benefit when women can control the number, timing, and spacing of their births.
As we do this work together we need to remember that future population growth and resulting population dynamics will be influenced by today’s policies. Experts predict that world population is likely to reach 9 billion by 2050, but it could go as high as 10 billion. So the policies and programs we decide on in the coming years will have a huge impact on the world’s development prospects over the course of the coming decades. Ultimately, voluntary family planning is a key underpinning of economic success. As you can see, this is an issue I am quite passionate about. When you empower women, you empower nations. I wish you a successful conference over the coming week and look forward to interesting and fruitful discussions.