It’s Women’s History Month and the world is abuzz with proclamations supporting gender equality and women’s rights. But too often, the mainstream narrative that celebrates historical progress on gender issues leaves abortion and contraception aside, leaving out the fact that without them, gender equality would have been, and remains, impossible.
This year, millions of women and girls will be denied access to abortion, forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, or resort to unsafe termination. Abortion continues to be unfairly restricted around the world, most recently in the United States, where new state bans are being introduced with the Decision of the Supreme Court to annul the legal protection of abortion established in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, more than 200 million people who want modern contraception still do not have access to it, from women living in rural communities, where these services often do not reach, to adolescent girls or single women who face taboos on the use of such protection.
The stigma and misinformation brazenly spread by anti-choice groups have resulted in laws criminalizing abortion, the suppression of accurate sexual health information, and a culture of shame and silence around people’s reproductive choices. Underserved, rural, and low-income communities that cannot access private healthcare or travel for services are hardest hit.
As a result, only 57 percent of women around the world are making their own informed decisions about sex and reproductive health. How can equality be achieved when we are denied authority over our own bodies and health care and when our access to essential life-saving health care services is restricted? It just can’t be.
That is why the lack of support for universal access to reproductive health, including abortion and contraception, renders the world’s efforts to promote gender equality disingenuous.
Gender equality requires access to contraception and safe abortion because, without them, women’s lives are in danger. In Addis Ababa, where I grew up, I saw firsthand what a lack of access to reproductive health information and services can do.
Someone I knew committed suicide after getting pregnant because she didn’t know who to turn to. Another girl disappeared from class one day, never to return; we then heard rumors that she had ingested bleach in an attempt to end her pregnancy. To this day, I don’t know if she lived or died.
The situation today is not much different. In Africa and Latin America, about three quarters of abortions are unsafe; Globally, almost half of all abortions are performed through unsafe methods. Women who resort to unsafe abortion risk devastating long-term health complications and their lives.
But access to abortion and contraception goes far beyond immediate life-saving medical care. As MSI Reproductive Choices Africa Director, helping women and girls make informed decisions about their bodies and their futures, I have come to realize that the power of reproductive choice lies in its ripple effect.
It is inextricably linked to helping girls stay in education and women to pursue careers; it breaks the cycles of poverty and promotes the political and economic participation of women. All of these help promote gender equality and support various global development goals.
Take education, for example. By increasing adolescent access to these health care options, millions more girls could stay in school. Unfortunately, without them, many girls miss out on finishing their education. Every year in sub-Saharan Africa up to four million adolescents Drop out of school due to pregnancy. In Niger, only one in 100 girls will finish high school. Just one additional year of education can increase a girl’s future earnings by up to 20 percent and we should be doing everything we can to make that happen.
Education brings with it opportunities for financial independence for women, another prerequisite for gender equality. When a woman has control over her own fertility, she can break the cycle of poverty and transform her life, her family and the world. Women’s equal participation in the economy has the potential to boost global gross domestic product (GDP) by 28 trillion dollars.
On the other hand, denying someone an abortion can create financial hardship that lasts for years. Research has found that women in the US who were unable to access an abortion experienced increase in household povertydebt and the likelihood of bankruptcy and eviction.
Education and economic stability help people become leaders, bring about social change and exercise political power, activities that are still disproportionately carried out by men. And for a woman, these are inextricably linked to her ability to access reproductive health care on her own terms.
I often think of the girls I went to school with whose unwanted pregnancies ended their lives, and I imagine how things would have been different if they had access to birth control or safe abortion services. They may have continued their education, set personal career and life goals, led change within their communities, and had children if and when it was right for them.
We can do better for the next generation of women and girls. As we continue the crucial work of advancing women’s rights and expanding access to modern contraception for all who want it, abortion must also be front and center. We should talk more about abortion because it is normal. We need to fund and invest in abortion because it is healthcare. And we must break down the barriers to abortion because it is a human right.
It is clear that the road to gender equality is paved with access to abortion and contraception.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.