African leaders should increase funding for contraceptive services if they want to reduce poverty and hunger, the prime ministers of Ethiopia and Rwanda said ahead of an international summit on family planning.
Writing in the Lancet medical journal, Rwanda's Pierre Damien Habumuremyi and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi said improving access to contraception also was vital for bringing down "unacceptably high" maternal mortality rates on the continent.
Major donors have praised Ethiopia and Rwanda for increasing access to family planning through strong political commitment and wise investments in their health systems.
On Wednesday the British government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will host the London Summit on Family Planning which will launch an initiative to give 120 million more women worldwide access to voluntary family planning methods by 2020.
Habumuremyi and Meles suggested family planning would not only save lives but would slow the rapid growth of Africa's swiftly burgeoning populations. Ethiopia and Rwanda are both predicted to double their populations by 2050.
The two leaders said reducing population growth would in turn help their governments make necessary investments "to reduce poverty and hunger, preserve natural resources, and adapt to the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation".
Estimates show that more than 40 million women in sub-Saharan Africa alone would like to stop or postpone childbearing, but are not using family planning.
"This is a serious cause for concern and a lost opportunity to bolster our development efforts," the prime ministers wrote.
KEY TO SUCCESS
Women who start childbearing at an early age and have numerous closely spaced pregnancies are at higher risk of dying in pregnancy.
Giving women the ability to delay, space and limit births is vital for bringing down maternal and infant mortality rates, experts say.
A new study in the Lancet shows that extending access to contraception to women who cannot currently obtain it could reduce maternal deaths by 30 percent.
Better spacing of births could likewise cut infant mortality by 10 percent and early childhood mortality by around 20 percent.
Habumuremyi and Meles said improving access to family planning would also enable women to become more economically active and allow parents to invest more in their children's education. This in turn would contribute to overall national development.
"We believe that improving education and improving access to family planning are not alternatives: they are rather complementary policies that African governments and the international community must pursue," the leaders wrote.
The two prime ministers said they were committed to prioritising family planning and were proud of the progress that is being made to increase contraceptive use in their countries.
In Rwanda, the percentage of married women using contraception rose from 13 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2010. In Ethiopia contraceptive use increased from 8 percent to 29 percent in the same period, they said.
But, they added, 25-35 percent of married women in both countries still did not have proper access to family planning.
The two prime ministers called on other African leaders to increase funding for family planning from national budgets.
They pointed out that improving access to contraception could save governments money spent on health care as fewer mothers would need medical help for pregnancy complications and unsafe abortions and there would be fewer deliveries.
Measures taken by both Ethiopia and Rwanda include:
Introducing programmes to enable people who need contraceptives to access them, irrespective of their ability to pay
Strengthening the ability of their health systems to deliver family planning by, among other things, improving the training of health workers
Extending family planning provision to communities through the direct involvement of community members. This is important for winning the support of men and other family members
Forging strong partnerships with religious and traditional leaders, whose support is valuable for successful family planning programmes
Ensuring family planning is allocated sufficient funding to maintain a steady supply of contraceptives to all parts of their countries