Children must not be a matter of chance: Lynda Chalker explains Britain's new pounds 100m family planning programme to control the world's population

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The Independent Online
THERE ARE 5.6 billion people in the world today, a figure likely to double within the next century. Rapid population growth in developing countries has put burdens on governments to provide extra health services, education and housing. Greater numbers also increase the pressure on the environment, in complex ways which scientists are just beginning to understand. Today, World Population Day, will focus our attention on these problems. But there are also reasons for hope.

Hundreds of millions of women and men in the developing world want to choose the number of children they have. They no longer want to go on having children every year - children they cannot afford to feed, clothe or send to school. More and more, governments are working to provide the family planning their people want. Already, we see encouraging signs: more than half of couples worldwide use contraception, compared to 10 per cent in the Sixties. Thirty years ago, women in developing countries had an average of six children.

Today, their daughters have three or four. Birth rates are falling significantly in Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and elsewhere in Asia, and are starting to fall in some African countries.

But there is still much to be done. Recent estimates suggest that 120 million couples have limited or no access to family planning; many of them are desperate to delay the birth of their next child, or to have no more. Our task is to help meet that huge demand through safe, affordable and accessible family planning.

At the same time we need to improve the reproductive health of men and women in developing countries - making pregnancy and childbirth safer, preventing and treating sexually transmitted diseases and giving help to infertile couples.

Three years ago, I launched a new British policy for our population work in developing countries called 'Children by Choice not Chance'. Since then the Overseas Development Administration has approved 62 population and reproductive health projects, many of them highly innovative. None uses coercion.

In India and Ethiopia we are funding social marketing programmes so that people can buy subsidised condoms from a corner shop or cigarette kiosk. In Bangladesh, the ODA is funding a programme that reaches male and female workers in the jute, textile and clothes factories in Chittagong, and in Malawi men are learning about family planning and reproductive health from fellow workers.

Where women find getting to health clinics difficult - in Islamic countries such as Pakistan, for instance - we are funding door-to-door family planning services. And at one clinic in Tanzania, visitors learn about family planning, sexually transmitted diseases and nutrition through plays performed by a local drama group funded by the ODA.

As well as improved access and distribution at the grassroots, reform at official level is vital, too, which is why we work with governments and regional health providers to find the best ways to use scarce resources.

Today I am launching the second phase of the ODA programme. Over the next two years, we plan to spend more than pounds 100m on 50 new population and reproductive health projects, large and small. I also want to continue funding vital research into safer, more affordable and more applicable contraceptive technologies. We are shortly starting a collaboration with the Medical Research Council to advance the clinical development of new contraceptives for both men and women.

In eight weeks' time, I travel to Egypt for the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. For the first time at such a gathering, the voice of women will take centre stage. The conference will also be setting ambitious targets. We will commit ourselves to halving - and halving again - the number of deaths during pregnancy, and to reducing the dreadful damage and suffering caused by unsafe abortion, pregnancy, and childbirth.

I shall also be lobbying to translate international goodwill into hard cash. The donor communities in Europe, the US, Japan and the development banks all have a role to play here.

Nearly all the delegations who will be in Cairo are united in calling for improved family planning services and better reproductive health care. No one is saying that those who wish - for religious or other reasons - not to use particular sorts of family planning methods or reproductive health care, should do so. I understand the position that the Catholic Church, for example, takes on what they describe as artificial methods of birth control. But, by the same token, no single group should seek to prevent the views of the majority from coming across loud and clear in the Cairo declaration and action plan.

Abortion will also be discussed at Cairo, rightly: about 200,000 women die each year from the complications of unsafe abortion. But I hope this discussion will not dominate the conference. The Cairo action plan should reflect the need to improve the safety of medical abortion; and we must reduce the rate at which abortion occurs. The best route to do this is to give proper access to family planning advice.

By equipping people with the ability to make choices about family size, we hope to help make an enormous impact on the quality of their lives, and their children's.

Baroness Chalker is Minister for Overseas Development.