It’s Women’s History Month and the world is bursting with messages of support for gender equality and women’s rights. All too often, the mainstream narrative celebrating historic progress on gender issues leaves aside abortion and birth control, and ignores 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 of pregnancy. Abortion continues to be unfairly restricted around the world, most recently in the United States, where new state bans were introduced with the Supreme Court’s decision to remove legal protections for abortion in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, more than 200 million people who want modern contraception still don’t have access to it — from women living in rural communities, where such services often don’t come, to adolescents or single women who face taboos about using such protections .
Stigma and disinformation unabashedly spread by anti-choice groups have resulted in laws criminalizing abortion, suppressing accurate information about sexual health, and a culture of shame and silence surrounding people’s reproductive choices. Marginalized rural and low-income communities that do not have access to private healthcare or travel for services are most affected.
As a result, only 57 percent of women around the world make their own informed decisions about sex and reproductive health. How can equality be achieved when we are denied control of our own bodies and health care and when our access to essential, life-saving health care is limited? It can’t be.
Therefore, the lack of support for universal access to reproductive health care, including abortion and contraception, discredits the world’s efforts to promote gender equality.
Gender equality requires access to contraception and safe abortion, because without contraception women’s lives are at stake. 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 becoming 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 taken bleach in an attempt to terminate 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; Worldwide, nearly half of abortions are performed dangerously. Women who resort to unsafe abortion risk devastating long-term health complications – and their lives.
But access to abortion and birth control goes far beyond immediate life-saving health care. As Africa Director of MSI Reproductive Choices, I help women and girls make informed decisions about their bodies and futures, and I’ve realized that the power of reproductive choice is in the ripple effect.
It is inseparable from helping girls stay in education and women pursue careers; it breaks cycles of poverty and encourages women’s political and economic participation. All of these help promote gender equality and support various global development goals.
Take education, for example. Increasing adolescents’ access to this health care system could help millions more girls stay in school. Unfortunately, without them, so many girls are robbed of the chance to complete 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 completes secondary school. Just one extra year of education can increase a girl’s future income by as much as 20 percent and we should do everything we can to make that happen.
Education brings opportunities for women’s financial independence, another prerequisite for gender equality. When a woman takes control of her 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 to increase global gross domestic product (GDP) by $28 trillion.
On the other hand, refusing someone’s abortion can cause years of economic hardship. Research has found that women in the US who did not have access to an abortion experienced higher levels of household poverty, debt, and the likelihood of bankruptcy and eviction.
Education and economic stability help people become leaders, bring about social change and wield political power – activities that are still disproportionately performed by men. And for a woman, these are inseparable from her ability to access reproductive health care on her own terms.
I often think back to the girls I went to school with—whose accidental pregnancies ended their lives—and imagine how things would have turned out differently if they had access to contraception or safe abortion care. They might have been able to continue their education, set personal life goals and careers, lead change in their community, and have 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 vital work of advancing women’s rights and expanding access to modern contraception to all who want it, abortion must also be at the center. We should talk more about abortion because it’s normal. We need to fund and invest in abortion because it’s health care. And we must break down 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 views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.