A MAJOR summit is being planned for July that aims to pour money into family planning in the developing world after almost two decades of neglect, particularly during the Bush years.

Parallel to this, millions of dollars are being spent by the Gates Foundation on developing more efficient forms of contraception, particularly injections that might only be required once every six months or annually.

The executive director of the UN Population Fund, Babatunde Osotimehin, in an interview with the Guardian, described proposals at the summit to turn family planning into a global movement as “transformational”.

Family planning can be political minefield, a taboo subject that attracts opposition from an array of opponents including American social conservatives and the Catholic church. There is widespread resistance, too, within many Muslim countries.

Family planning has also been tainted by its association with ‘population control’ — the discredited attempts by various countries to reduce their populations through coercion. There are an estimated 250 million women across the world who need access to family planning, in the form of information and regular supplies of contraceptives.

The summit, to be held in London on July 11, aims to provide access to family planning to 120 million women at an estimated cost of $4bn. It is being organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the British government’s department for international development (DFID). Between 20 and 25 countries are scheduled to attend, including the US, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania.

Osotimehin, the sumit’s co-chair, speaking in his office in New York, acknowledged that direct funding and political support for family planning had been reduced over the last 15 years or so, partly because of a switch of resources to combating HIV/ Aids and partly because of social and political opposition.

The Bush administration in 2002 withdrew US funding to the UN Population Fund claiming it financed forced abortions. The Obama administration has since restored America’s contributions.

In spite of the US shift, there is still not the same drive towards family planning in many parts of the world as there was in the 1970s and 1980s. Osotimehin, a former Nigerian health minister, sees the summit as “an opportunity to play catch-up”.

Family planning, he said, “enables women to take charge of their lives and for young people to plan their lives. It empowers a woman to do what they want to do in terms of the number of children they want to have and can afford.”

An estimated 40 per cent of pregnancies in the developing world are not planned.

The aim of the summit is to provide better family planning in 69 of the poorest countries with low rates of contraception. Much of the $4bn will come from the health budgets of these countries, with the rest coming from the Gates Foundation, DFID and other countries.

Osotimehin said: “It is about global planning... what will it take to provide these facilities to women and girls around the world and actually change the course of their lives. That is what will make it transformational.”

Much of the drive is coming from the normally reclusive Melinda Gates. The Gates Foundation, run by Melinda and her husband, is worth $34bn.

A Catholic, Melissa Gates disagrees with the church’s opposition to contraception. A lot of focus of the Gates Foundation campaign, in addition to ensuring adequate supplies of contraceptives, is research into ways of making contraception easier.

Gary Darmstadt, director of the family health division of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in a phone interview, said Melinda Gates had spoken to women round the world who told her they wanted to be able to plan their families, with access to information and contraceptive supplies.

— The Guardian, London

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