It is Women’s History Month and the world is bursting with proclamations of support for gender equality and women’s rights. But too often, the general narrative celebrating historical progress on gender issues leaves out abortion and contraception, sidelining the fact that without them, gender equality would have been – and still is – impossible.
This year, millions of women and girls will be denied access to abortion, forced to carry unintended pregnancies to term or resort to unsafe termination. Abortion continues to be unjustly restricted across the world, most recently in the United States, where new state bans are being introduced with the Supreme Court’s decision to rescind 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 such services often do not reach, to adolescents or unmarried women who face taboos about using such protection.
Stigma and disinformation spread unabashedly by anti-choice groups have resulted in laws that criminalise abortion, suppression of accurate sexual health information, and a culture of shame and silence around people’s reproductive choices. Marginalised, rural and low-income communities that can’t access private healthcare or travel for services are the ones most affected.
As a result, only 57 percent of women around the world are making their own informed decisions on sex and reproductive health. How can equality be achieved when we are denied agency over our own bodies and healthcare and when our access to essential, life-saving healthcare services is restricted? It cannot be.
That is why the lack of support for universal access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion and contraception, renders the world’s efforts to further gender equality disingenuous.
Gender equality demands access to contraception and safe abortion because, without it, women’s lives are on the line. In Addis Ababa, where I grew up, I saw first hand what a lack of access to reproductive health information and services can do.
Someone I knew died by suicide after becoming pregnant because she did not know who to turn to. Another girl disappeared from class one day, never to return; we then heard rumours that she had ingested bleach in an attempt to end her pregnancy. To this day, I don’t know whether she lived or died.
The situation today is not too different. Across Africa and Latin America, about three-quarters of abortions are unsafe; globally, almost half of abortions are performed through dangerous methods. Women who resort to an unsafe abortion risk devastating long-term health complications – and their lives.
But access to abortion and contraception goes far beyond immediate life-saving healthcare. As MSI Reproductive Choices’ Africa Director, I help women and girls make informed decisions about their bodies and futures, and I have realised the power of reproductive choice is in its ripple effect.
It is inextricably linked to helping girls remain in education and women pursue careers; it breaks cycles of poverty and encourages women’s political and economic participation. All of these help advance gender equality and support several global development goals.
Take education, for example. By increasing adolescent access to these healthcare options, millions more girls could stay in school. Sadly, without them, so many girls are robbed of the chance to finish their education. Every year in sub-Saharan Africa up to four million teenage girls drop out of school because of pregnancy. In Niger, only one in 100 girls will finish secondary school. Just one additional year of education can increase a girl’s future earnings by up to 20 percent and we ought to be doing everything we can to make that happen.
Education brings with it opportunities for women’s financial independence, another prerequisite for gender equality. When a woman has control over their own fertility, it 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 of boosting global gross domestic product (GDP) by $28 trillion.
On the flipside, denying someone an abortion can create economic hardship lasting years. Research has found that women in the US who were unable to access an abortion experienced increased household poverty, debt and the likelihood of bankruptcy and eviction.
Education and economic stability help people become leaders, create social change and exercise political power – activities still disproportionately performed by men. And for a woman, these are inextricably linked to her ability to access reproductive healthcare on her own terms.
I often think back to the girls I went to school with – whose unintended pregnancies ended their lives – and I imagine how things would have turned out differently if they had had access to contraception or safe abortion care. They might have carried on with their education, decided on personal life goals and careers, led change within their communities, and had children if or when it was right for them.
We can do better for the next generation of women and girls. While we continue the crucial work of progressing women’s rights and expanding access to modern contraception to everyone who wants it, abortion must also be front and centre. 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 barriers to abortion because it is a human right.
It is clear that the path to gender equality is paved with access to abortion and contraception.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.