Sexual and reproductive healthcare issues have now rapidly come into the spotlight, with the contention of Roe v. Wade, the domestic gag rule, and the closing of abortion clinics, actions spurred in part by more pro-life individuals dominating positions of power within the U.S government.
Many people aware of the benefits of reproductive healthcare services and information such as increased wages for women, reduced maternal deaths, and the ability to plan a family overlook one aspect. This aspect of family planning is the contribution to the rise of female leadership, and how this could potentially change the world’s economic and social structure.
To learn more about how family planning shapes leadership, we sat down with Seema Jalan, Executive Director of the Universal Access Project (UAP) at the United Nations Foundation. This initiative aims to protect and strengthen U.S foreign aid funding for international reproductive and sexual health and family planning by rallying donors and advocates and using its unique connection with the United Nations to mobilize policy and funding in the family planning community.
Under Seema’s strategic leadership for the past eight years, UAP has successfully helped hold the line on family planning funding under consistent threats from the U.S administration, allowing women and girls around the world to access life-saving healthcare services.
Seema grew up as a South Asian woman in New Jersey raised by immigrant parents from Rajasthan, India. She frequently travelled with her family to India where she was exposed to the poverty-stricken conditions most people live in.
These experiences opened her eyes to the differences between her and those less fortunate. She quickly identified poor healthcare, extreme poverty, and a lack of education were factors.
These disparities fueled her passion for global health. After a prominent career in investment banking, Seema decided to change course and focus her efforts on global gender equity issues.
I’ve achieved the professional success that I wanted because I had access to sexual and reproductive information and healthcare and I will be certain to ensure that my children have that too.
For the past 20 years, she has made women’s health advocacy her focus area, working across a range of organizations both in the U.S and abroad — including working for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney from New York — before landing her first leadership role at the non-profit organization Women Thrive Worldwide to direct their policy work end violence against girls and women. Years later, she was recruited by the United Nations Foundation to become the Executive Director of the Universal Access Project.
25 years ago, the world made a bold statement: individual reproductive and sexual health is a human right.
— UN Foundation (@unfoundation) November 6, 2019
According to Seema, being able to access sexual and reproductive healthcare services and information is essential, not only so that more women can enter the workforce, but so that a greater proportion can pursue leadership roles, having the power to truly drive change.
She stresses that the process is “intrinsically foundational — if a girl has access to sexual and reproductive health care from a young age, she is better able to plan her life, including the career she wants and the education needed to achieve this.
By pursuing higher education opportunities, she has the expertise and experience to apply for leadership positions at her organization. In the United States, after hormonal contraceptives became widely available in the 1960s, the number of women on a contraceptive pill pursuing professional careers in medicine and law increased by five percent.
On a personal level, Seema grew up in an environment where she always knew she could determine her life path, access higher education opportunities, and have the constant support of her friends and family. By accessing critical contraception services, she was able to plan her family with her husband Archie and they are now the proud parents of two sons, a five-year-old and a one-year-old.
She says, “I’ve achieved the professional success that I wanted because I had access to sexual and reproductive information and healthcare and I will be certain to ensure that my children have that too.
Last year, Melinda Gates declared in an interview that “no country in the last 50 years has escaped poverty without making sure that women have voluntary access to contraceptives,” a statement that is particularly relevant for developing countries like India that are trying to improve economic conditions and the quality of life.
The country is one of the most gender unequal nations globally, with disproportionate numbers of women employed in the workforce and the largest unmet need for family planning in the world.
It’s a domino effect; if a woman is able to determine if and when they want to have children, they are more likely to be economically stable and as a result, their children will be able to access the same educational, economic, and professional opportunities.
As an Indian woman, Seema outlines that most minorities have more limited access to reproductive healthcare because of significant structural barriers like no access to healthcare facilities, limited education, gender discrimination, and more, especially those living in rural areas. This impedes their ability to pursue careers and earn higher wages, which is the best way to lift themselves out of poverty.
Due to these barriers, brown women — among other communities of color — have to be smarter, more strategic, and fight harder for their basic rights: Whether it’s a promotion at work or contraceptive access, it’s clear that minority women need to jump through more hoops to lead a life of dignity and equality.
Women’s rights and happiness is not just a woman’s responsibility, it’s everyone’s. When more women have greater access to healthcare services and are in positions of power, it’s not only the people around them that benefit – it’s the entire world.