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Africa: Family Planning

Volume 693: debated on Monday 9 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to promote family planning as part of the campaign to reduce poverty in Africa.

My Lords, the Government are committed to improving sexual and reproductive health, including family planning, across Africa. In 2006, DfID provided £25.1 million to UNFPA and £7.5 million to the International Planned Parenthood Federation to support work on sexual and reproductive health and rights. We also work at country level and are funding reproductive health services in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, enabling women, men and adolescents to avoid unwanted pregnancy and HIV.

My Lords, although I welcome and appreciate the Government’s efforts, is it not a tragedy that funding for family planning, which has been pretty successful in reducing the birth rate even in some of the poorest countries, should now be reduced and that, because of the lobbying against contraception in the United Nations by the American evangelicals, unfortunately supported by the Catholic Church, the birth rate in countries such as Uganda is now more than seven children per woman—in rural Africa, it is more than six per woman? Does this not mean that any hope of achieving the millennium goals will be frustrated, that no progress can be made in the education of women and, indeed, that making poverty history will be a vain aim? Is it not surprising that there has not been more of a squeak of protest against this moral outrage from Her Majesty’s Government, those who organise pop concerts and others who profess their concern about welfare in Africa?

My Lords, in response to the last point, I am slightly outraged at the noble Lord’s view of what this Government are doing on sexual health and reproduction. We have been leading the world. It is thanks to this Government that we now have a universally accepted target for sexual health and reproductive rights before 2015. This Government have done an excellent job, although I well recognise that it is important to keep family planning at the heart of development policy.

My Lords, while I endorse the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on the attitude of the current US Administration, does the Minister agree that the history of our own society and many others demonstrates that the best inducements to limiting family size are confidence in the future, a falling rate of child mortality and rising incomes? I therefore congratulate the Government on their balanced programme to promote sexual health and family planning while simultaneously addressing assiduously the basic requirements of development throughout the world.

My Lords, my noble friend is right that experience shows that improving health, education and livelihoods, promoting gender equality and rights and addressing sexual health and reproduction all have to be a balanced part of current and future policy. On the earlier question from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, which I did not answer, I agree that we have some problems with US policy. We firmly believe that policy should be driven not by moral ideology, but by a firm evidence base.

My Lords, is there not an important health issue here? Is the Minister aware that worldwide more than 25 million people have so far died from AIDS, mostly in Africa? Can the Government not put it to the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church that the encouragement, not the discouragement, of the use of condoms could preserve life and significantly reduce this toll of death?

My Lords, I am sure that my honourable friends in the other place who have contact with people from the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See do put it to them. We well recognise that condoms are important for sexual health and reproduction, and as a counter against HIV and AIDS.

My Lords, is there not a precedent in that one of the major influences on family spacing is the education of women? Will the Minister therefore not give real priority, as the Government have already done, to education generally and particularly the education of women in Africa?

Yes, my Lords. The Government fully recognise that and are making a huge investment in the education of children and especially the education of women in Africa. We recognise that women’s empowerment can come only through the education of women and girls.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that few countries have risen out of poverty while their birth rates are extremely high? We have heard from other noble Lords about the difficulty and the decline in international support for family planning. Could this be brought more within the current expansion of provision to combat AIDS so that women are better able to control the size of their families, as they clearly wish to do?

My Lords, this is one of the things that the Government pressed for at the recent G8 meeting in Heiligendamm. We were working to ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights were incorporated into the G8’s comprehensive AIDS response, and I understand that we were successful.

My Lords, is the Minister seeking to support Angola in its efforts to prevent any rise in its HIV infection rate, which is lower than that of its neighbours, as the country has so far been protected by the long civil war and its aftermath? Is she aware of the constructive work being undertaken by Angola’s churches in response to HIV/AIDS?

My Lords, the Government are well aware of the excellent work of the churches in Angola. I believe that we support the work of NGOs in terms of sexual health and reproduction.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in several countries in Africa, not least in Botswana, the ABC campaign—A is for abstain, B is for be faithful, and C is for using condoms—is becoming increasingly effective? Does she welcome, support and encourage the further development of this campaign?

My Lords, the Government wholeheartedly support the ABC campaign in Botswana and elsewhere, but what we do not support is abstinence only. We support the three pins of the triangle.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the arguments both for and against family planning are many-sided? Perhaps I may mention something that has influenced me. A good many years ago, before the arrival of AIDS, I visited a developing country and at a lunch was seated next to the wife of the Minister of planning. She asked me about my family, and I asked her about hers. She said, “I have had 14 children, but happily seven of them died”. That seemed to me a very powerful argument in favour of family planning.

My Lords, has there been any real improvement in the availability of contraceptive supplies in developing countries, or is the situation in Africa the same as it was a couple of years ago, when it was one condom per man per year?

My Lords, there has been a huge improvement in the number of condoms being distributed in Nigeria, for example, as well as in other African countries, but clearly there are nowhere near enough. That is something that we, with our international colleagues, have to work on. However, it must be said that it is not just up to donor Governments; it is also the responsibility of African Governments themselves.

My Lords, current projections suggest that Africa’s population will double within a generation. Can the noble Baroness therefore explain why Chapter 5 of DfID’s White Paper, Making Governance Work for the Poor, does not contain proposals to deal with the problems of population growth in Africa?

My Lords, population growth may well not have been a topic of that specific chapter. However, themes relating to sexual health and reproduction, such as health services in general and the empowerment and education of women, run across the White Paper as a whole. Therefore, they are an integral part of that paper.

My Lords, the noble Baroness said just now that moral considerations should not be the driver of policy. Did she really mean that?