It’s especially interesting to have a reproductive health advocate and activist offer keynote comments at a meeting of researchers, mainly economists who have a high standard of evidence. Yet Professor Fred Sai, an extraordinary man whose international experience spans decades, offered his insights into the movement of reproductive health transitions on a global scale and within sub-Saharan Africa. And drawing on a combination of his observations and experiences, Professor Sai made the case to the audience of economic demographers that an understanding of the policy environment is critical to the development of evidence-based policies. Given that one of the key reasons for the creation of the PopPov network is to support an evidence base to better understand the relationship between reproductive health, population growth, and economic development, Professor Sai’s message helped set the tone for the 6th annual PopPov network conference and reinforced the importance of strong evidence that can be explained to policymakers.
One of Sai’s observations was related to the use of family planning in the continent. In Eastern and Southern Africa, about 40 percent of married women use modern family planning; in contrast, use in West Africa is much lower—in Ghana, one of the regional leaders in family planning, fewer than 20 percent of women use modern family planning; in other countries, such as Mali, only about 4 percent of married women use family planning.
In spite of low prevalence, many leaders and advocates argue that family planning is a woman’s right—a point that most people take for granted and about which few would argue. Although the language of human rights is used, Professor Sai made a point that is vital to understanding what having a right really means. “A right is not a right if the citizenry is unaware nor can they be fulfilled without government provision to the people.” Professor Sai makes a keen distinction that separates the language that many policymakers use and the reality of millions of women and couples around the world. If people don’t know about family planning, then how can they be expected to exercise their right to decide on the timing and spacing of having children? Similarly, if governments do not work to make family planning information and services available to the public, than it is complicit in not holding up the rights of their citizen. Without both knowledge of and access to family planning, the rights of millions of women and men cannot be achieved.
Professor Sai, in linking reproductive health and economic development, also highlighted the need to be attentive to the needs of youth. Child marriage, access to education, and child labor all impede national development because they inhibit young people from achieving their potential. Data suggest that fewer girls are forced into early marriage than before and that more girls are going to school and moving into secondary education. While there is some positive movement in improving opportunities for young people, there is also the critical link to job creation so that the better-educated youth have actually take advantage of their skills. To achieve the demographic dividend, it is not sufficient just to change a country’s age structure through reducing fertility. There are other conditions to be fulfilled—those conditions that are the focus of the PopPov network’s research.
As a global leader in reproductive health, Professor Sai has contributed to positive changes of the past 40 years. His insights set the stage for the annual PopPov research meeting, talking about the policies that are needed and the importance of useful, relevant evidence that can be used to increase political support for family planning and reproductive health among African leaders.