UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is a big believer in the value of girls’ education. In January he said it was his “fervent belief” that it was the best way to lift communities in developing countries out of poverty.
By improving women’s earning potential and choices in life through education, keeping girls in school was "simplest and most transformative thing we can do to tackle poverty and end the scourge of gender-based violence,” he added.
At the G7 summit, where the UK government went on to make girls’ education a flagship issue, Johnson announced an injection of £430 million in funding over the next five years to be spent on helping children from the world’s poorest countries get back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic — with a priority on getting girls back to school.
However, many charities and NGOs working on improving the life chances of girls and women in low-come countries were confused.
If girls' education was such a priority, why has the UK government cut tens of millions of pounds from projects that ensure girls have access to contraception, which gives them the chance to choose if and when to start a family, and crucially, the chance to finish school?
It’s thought that a staggering 218 million women in low- and middle-income countries do not have access to modern contraception. That means many don’t have control over if they get pregnant, with huge consequences for other life milestones like graduating or getting a job.
There are an estimated 111 million unintended pregnancies each year in low- and middle- income countries, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research non-profit, and that represents 49% of all pregnancies in those countries.
As well as having an impact on girls’ education and access to work, pregnancy can be risky for women and girls who have little access to maternal health care. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15 to 19-year-old girls globally.
The “Women’s Integrated Sexual Health” (WISH) project, funded by UK aid and delivered by the NGO MSI Reproductive Choices (MSI) and its partners including the International Planned Parenthood Federation, was launched in 2018 to help address this need. The programme was originally planned to span several years, with the aim to deliver sexual and reproductive health care and rights to 50 million people across 27 countries.
However, last year the UK government announced a £4.5 billion cut to UK’s overall aid budget, reducing the overall spend on aid this year from 0.7% of the country’s Gross National Income (GNI) to 0.5% of GNI. And in April, the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) confirmed that amid these cuts the WISH programme will receive no funding this year.
With no future support for the project in the pipeline, the impact on women’s lives and futures will be devastating, the organisation says.MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls are forced out of school every year across sub-Saharan Africa due to teenage pregnancy. This could have direct consequences for the UK government’s ambitious plans for girls’ education.
Through WISH, MSI and partners, have in the first three years of its funding, provided a range of services such as sexual health clinics and educational workshops, while working with local and national governments to improve the access level and quality of reproductive health care and strengthen reproductive rights.
Over the last two years, the charity and their partners have worked in 12 countries in West and Central Africa to provide reproductive services to 3.5 million women. Through these services — by preventing unplanned pregnancies and delivering life-saving post-abortion care — they estimated that 22,000 lives have been saved.
In Nigeria, for example, case studies reveal the importance of these types of services for young people.
The team started a youth outreach programme in 2018 — because stigma often prevents teens from attending sexual health clinics and the outreach was especially aimed at teaching adolescent boys about contraception and sexual health.
Muhammad, an 18-year-old student attended one of the sessions at his local health centre, telling MSI in a case study report seen by Global Citizen, that he later returned with his wife Aisha where they were able to speak to a clinician about their options.
The couple already have a child, but both want to continue education before having any more children. Aisha decided to get a long-lasting, reversible contraceptive implant, and now plans to return to continue her studies.
Another teenager, Blessing, who accessed free contraception via the WISH clinic in Nigeria told MSI: “My ambition is to finish secondary school, gain admission to university, and achieve my dream of becoming a lawyer. But I have to protect myself to see my dream come true."
The project has also aimed to reach marginalised women who are often left out from access to health services.
For example, by teaming up with the disability charity Leonard Cheshire Disability they helped disabled women in Sierra Leone access contraception and education on sexual health. And in Burkina Faso, MSI serves women and girls who have been internally displaced by conflict and living in refugee camps.
"Too often we see young women abandon school."— MSI Reproductive Choices (@MSIchoices) June 16, 2021
Safietou provides adolescents in Senegal with the advice, information, and contraceptive services they need to stay in school and pursue the future of their choice.💪 pic.twitter.com/hjIflFNjq8
The WISH project isn’t the only service delivering maternal and reproductive health care facing uncertainty as a result of the UK aid cuts.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which works to deliver modern contraceptives and life-saving maternal health medicine to the world’s poorest communities, has had its funding from the British government reduced by 85%.
UNFPA has said the £130 million lost from UK aid would have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies, and 4.3 million unsafe abortions.
Meanwhile, MSI has estimated that, as UNFPA supplies them with vital medicines and contraceptives, the cut to UNFPA alone services alone could leave an additional 6.5 million people in marginalised, remote communities unable to access contraceptive methods.
With the combined impact from the cuts to UNFPA and to MSI, MSI reports that it is facing a £45 million funding gap.
“The cuts will do untold harm to the progress made on preventing women dying from pregnancy related causes, and jeopardise the government's commitments on girls' education and increasing resilience to the climate crisis," Simon Cooke, the chief executive of MSI, said in response to the news in April.
Sue Holland, MSI’s director for the region, wrote in April, that when former US President Donald Trump cut aid to their organisation, it prevented “MSI from serving an estimated 8 million women with family planning.”
Holland is concerned about the same roll-back of services happening again, especially in places like Burkina Faso, where the WISH programme is the main provider of long-acting forms of contraceptive, and Mali where it provides 30% of all contraceptive needs accessed.
“You cannot underestimate the significance of contraception in giving girls and women control over their lives and futures,” Holland continued. “When girls can have children later, they can finish their education, become financially independent, and contribute to society. They can space their births further apart, which means healthier lives for them and their babies.”