Ensuring that Family Planning Programs Respect, Protect, and Fulfill Women’s Rights

In the developing world, 222 million women would like to delay or avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraceptives. At the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning, the international community made a commitment to reduce this unmet need by reaching 120 million women and girls from the world’s poorest countries with voluntary access to family planning information, contraceptives, and services by 2020, an agreement known as FP2020.

The goals of the London Summit and FP2020 have been greeted positively by most organizations and individuals involved in family planning. However, concerns have been raised about certain aspects of the agreement, particularly the numeric goal setting. For example, some observers have said that setting such goals would lead to efforts focusing on the populations who are easiest to reach, in particular women and girls in urban areas who already have access to some services, rather than those who are harder and more costly to reach. These individuals, such as women and girls who are illiterate, undereducated, or live in rural areas, could be largely ignored.

Such concerns were cited by several leading family planning experts who developed a new “Framework for Voluntary Family Planning Programs that Respect, Protect, and Fulfill Human Rights.” This framework, featured in the Population Council’s journal Studies in Family Planning in March 2014, is predicated on the notion that all women and girls, regardless of where they live or how difficult they are to reach and support, have the right to comprehensive family planning information and services.

The framework offers a practical approach to incorporating human rights into the development, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of voluntary family planning programs. The approach is based on research and analysis indicating that transparent, accountable family planning programs that are grounded in human rights are the most successful in meeting the needs of women and girls.

The framework defines a human rights-based approach to voluntary family planning as requiring the following:

  • Carefully analyzing and considering existing inequities in family planning and reproductive health programs, and in the laws and policies that govern these programs
  • Ensuring that policies and programs are anchored in a system of rights by integrating core principles such as accountability, empowerment, equitable service delivery, and non-discrimination
  • Focusing on availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality when defining service standards
  • Empowering all individuals—especially those in the most marginalized populations—to play a central role in the development of policies and hold stakeholders accountable for demonstrating meaningful change

Programs that are grounded in human rights will help women and adolescent girls access the information and services they need, when they need them. A renewed global commitment to provide support for family planning provides an opportunity to transform family planning programs and reach those most vulnerable and in need of these life-changing services.

The framework was developed by researchers at The Futures Group and EngenderHealth, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The lead author, Karen Hardee, is now a Population Council senior associate and director of the Council’s USAID-funded Evidence Project.

“Human rights treaties and conventions that uphold reproductive rights have the status of international law. Countries throughout the world are signatories to these human rights treaties and conventions,” said Hardee. “Family planning programming to meet FP2020 goals must have human rights values and norms at their core. The global commitment to provide support for family planning that was galvanized at the 2012 London FP Summit offers the opportunity to transform family planning programs and reach all of those in need of services.”


Hardee, Karen, Jan Kumar, Karen Newman, Lynn Bakamjian, Shannon Harris, Mariela Rodríguez, and Win Brown. 2014. “Voluntary, human rights–based family planning: A conceptual framework,” Studies in Family Planning 45[1]: 1–18. www.popcouncil.org/research/voluntary-human-rights-based-family-planning-a-conceptual-framework


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation