The Family Planning Summit London 2012 – More Than Statistics and Soundbites

The Family Planning Summit of 2012 took place in London today. A stones throw from the UK Houses of Parliament, world leaders, activists and health care workers and providers gather together to put Family Planning back on table in developing countries around the globe.



Melinda Gates began by calling it ‘an important milestone in the history of Family Planning’.

In Ban Ki-Moon’s pre-recorded video address he expressed the wish that ‘no child should be born unwanted, and no woman should die needlessly in childbirth’.

There followed a lot of speeches by ministers of various countries, expressing their commitment to the cause.  Speeches filled with statistics and soundbites.

‘One in three 15 year olds in Sierra Leone is pregnant or has given birth’

‘Teen pregnancies account for 40% of maternal deaths’

‘doubling our budget of Family Planning’

‘In Malawi we have a saying: No parenthood before adulthood’


The Swedish Minister for International Development Ms Carlsson stood out from the crowd, by talking about the role of boys and men in beproductive health.

Her Norwegian colleague was amusing, telling of sitting under the table as his mother discussed women’s rights, ‘I learned never to talk when grown up women were talking’ and said ‘it is not enough to reach the hearts of the development ministers, we must reach the brains of the finance ministers’.

After lunch I had the opportunity to sit in when the UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Melinda Gates met some youth workers. Some of them were British youngsters who volunteer for three months in developing countries. Others were youth peer counsellors who work in their own countries to promote uptake of Family Planning.

The young people sat with Andrew Mitchell first then in swept the PM with his entourage. It is incredible how many people accompany the PM. I did wonder if he gets used to it or if it bothers him sometimes. He didn’t flinch, although the young people did, when the press photographers dashed in and started taking photos.  After a few moments, he shooed the press out of the room and then had a chat with the volunteers.

He chatted for about 10 minutes, before being signalled by a member of staff to wrap it up then he was off. I was slightly disappointed that Melinda Gates did not have a chance to speak to the volunteers, and wonder if she was too.

Cameron then gave his speech. Back to statistics and soundbites, although it did go down well with the delegates. I have never been a big fan of Cameron, but I do have to hand it to him. His support of this summit is a very good thing.

After his speech he took a couple of questions, and the floor was energised when a woman stood and asked if Cameron felt that it was right that the Holy See should try to influence African Nations on matters of Family Planning. I am not sure if Cameron misunderstood, or if it was a typical political manoeuvre to deflect from a question he did not want to answer. In any case, he blathered his way through some more soundbites and stats.

Melinda Gates then announced that the Gates Foundation was doubling their investment, and talked about the investment in innovation. She drew parallels to her and her husband’s interest in technological innovation, and the innovation on behalf of the planet, to do good things. She was excited to announce innovation on behalf of women, talking of the investment in Research and Development in Family Planning.

When you invite half a dozen heads of states to an event like this, then ask them to say a few words, you can be sure that they will not stick to their allotted 5 minutes. The Ugandan President even joked that this was not a theatre and he was not an act (although I am not quite sure that was a joke and his comments  left a nasty taste in the mouths of those who recalled some of his less amusing statements)

So the afternoon session dragged on a bit, with speaker after speaker, statistics and – yes, those soundbites.

Are we perfecting the art of soundbites, getting them just the right size to fit into a headline or a tweet?

The end of the official announcements was marked with the Comic Relief-esque, ‘We wanted to raise $4.3bn, but we have raised a total of $4.6bn’ and then Andrew Mitchell and Melinda Gates departed the stage.


The rest of the afternoon (and into the early evening) was taken up by discussions and Q&A sessions by various panels of experts. I attended the two sessions on youths and girls. By the end of these I was suffering from severe statistic overload, but there were some highlights.

Mary Robinson spoke eloquently about attending the Rio conference, where she and others were dismayed at the ‘backsliding‘ from the Cairo Declaration.

‘the Cairo and Beijing texts are fundamental and must be upheld’ she stated, emphatically to nods of agreement from the listeners.

I would happily sat and listened to Ms Robinson for quite some time, but she finished by saying that the pledges made were important, but the swift implementation was vital to help women. The overrunning of the earlier session by the Presidents mean that she ran out of time, as she had to rush to the airport, ‘because planes don’t wait for me anymore’.

The First Lady of Zambia was one of the few who mentioned the role that men play in the health of women. She talked about women not having a voice, and men talking on their behalf. She bravely went where David Cameron had feared to tread, taking on the churches, referring to the earlier question about the Holy See.

She also talked about domestic violence and rape. ‘We have to say no to violence. I am saying no to domestic violence’.

Ian Askew from Population Control started with a few shocking statistics.

40 t0 60 % of post rape services (ie reported rapes) are for girls under the age of 15 years.

Over 30% of girls stated that their first sexual encounter was not consensual.

It was something that bothered me continually throughout the discussions. When we talk of 12 year old girls getting pregnant, should we really be talking of how to protect them from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, or should we be taking of protecting them from sexual abuse?


Critics of the summit (and no, I am not talking of THOSE kind of critics, the ones that sent me my first twitter hate tweet this morning) pointed out that it is impossible to talk about Family Planning without mentioning abortion. Which is true. It is also impossible to talk about these issues without mentioning domestic violence, and I am very glad that several speakers did so.

It is impossible to talk about Family Planning without mentioning abortion but at the same time it would have been impossible to put abortion on the agenda.

I don’t agree that it is a ‘wasted opportunity‘, but a good start on a long road. Getting all of these countries to come together, cajoling private companies to do their bit, keeping a lid on the anti-family planning protesters – it must have been like herding cats.

Melinda Gates has been criticised for allowing her personal beliefs to come before the good of women of the world, but I feel that this is taking a very narrow view of the issue (not to mention ignoring all that Melinda has already achieved).

If abortion rights had been on the agenda, then I do not think that so many countries would have agreed to take part. Would countries with very strict abortion laws, or even a complete ban on abortion such as Malawi or Indonesia have taken part? The handful of token anti-choice protesters were hardly noticed today. That would not have been the case had abortion reform been a part of the Summit. The message of the Summit would certainly have been hijacked.

In my opinion, the UK government and the Gates Foundation did the best that they could to help save lives in the developing world. I do not believe that they would have been as successful in raising that amazing about of money and promised support if they had included abortion rights in the summit.

It was an extremely long day for the delegates, but the culmination of many months of organisation by Dfid and the Gates Foundation. Now, as Andrew Mitchell stated, comes the even more difficult part.

‘We cannot just talk the talk. We must walk the walk’.


A pretty good final soundbite.


  • Lesley Beeton

    Lynn, I feel so helpless about the future of women in Africa. I grew up in South Africa, with every opportunity, and nobody said I couldn’t do something because I am a girl. Now decades on, the debate is global but I still see so many obstacles to equality, education and health care. 

    Thank you for highlighting this serious issue. It’s not just about fundraising, though. It’s also about asking people for their time, to spend time in Africa, helping with projects and meeting inspirational women (which you have done and written about) x.

    • Lynn C Schreiber

      That was one of the reasons I was very interested in this campaign. The fact that it is not about asking people to donate money (or not directly) but about raising awareness and putting pressure on governments to do the right thing.

      I met so many inspiring people in Kenya, who I hope to highlight in the coming weeks.

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