For many reasons, women have dominated Olympic headlines since the Opening Ceremony. As I join the over 30 million watching the Olympics in America, I’ve been particularly struck by the enthusiasm generated by Gabby Douglas and the rest of the US women’s gymnastics team. London 2012 marks the first time that Team USA has sent more female than male athletes to the Olympics.
Back in Britain, the public has been captivated by the performance of our female cyclists (for the first time ever, the number of gold medals on offer for women are the same as for men) as they have matched their male counterparts medal for medal, equalling their success. Still, the real story is much larger and is inspiring thousands of girls around the globe, both young and old. Nearly 5,000 women from across the globe are competing in this year’s games — 44 percent of the total athletes. We’ve come a long way since 1900, when just 19 women took part. Even more impressive is that there are now female entrants from every single competing country, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Brunei.
We’ve seen incredible progress for women on the Olympic turf. I hope this will inspire policymakers to empower women off the field. In countries where women are locked out of decisions that shape a society, half of its skills, intelligence and purchasing power go untapped. These countries underachieve technologically and economically.
Empowering women economically and politically is the key to building strong, open societies. Equally important is health and reproductive empowerment. Just last month, in an effort to even that playing field, the British Government announced that contraceptives will reach an additional 120 million women and girls in the world’s poorest countries by 2020 thanks to a new set of commitments by more than 150 leaders from donor and developing countries, international agencies, civil society, foundations and the private sector.
This contribution is hugely important: when a woman is prevented from choosing when to have children she may have to give up school or the chance to run a business. As Prime Minister David Cameron said at the London Summit on Family Planning, “When a woman is prevented from choosing when to have children it’s not just a violation of her human rights, it can fundamentally compromise her chances in life and the opportunities for her children.”
Family planning reduces pressure on resources and frees women to seize economic and other opportunities outside the home, to the benefit of all. For example, in Matlab in Bangladesh, a twenty-year study found that a family programme together with improved support for maternal and child health led not just to smaller, healthier families but also to higher education and earnings for the women. The average value of an educated woman’s home was as much as a fifth higher than for women in nearby villages where this programme hadn’t been introduced.
The Olympics have made great strides in bringing attention to global gender equality, and the UK’s support of family planning is a crucial step on a long journey towards growth, equality and development. We’ve cleared some major hurdles, but it will still take concerted effort to reach the finish line.