Julia Bunting

Julia Bunting became the ninth president of the Population Council in March 2015. Ms. Bunting is widely known for her path-breaking work on reproductive and maternal health during her 12-year tenure at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), where she oversaw the UK government’s international development policy on HIV and AIDS; maternal, newborn, and child health; sexual and reproductive health and rights; and population. Most recently, she served as a director at the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), where she led the Federation’s Programme and Technical areas.

When I was 16, I went on an exchange program to teach a class at a remote village school in Tanzania. Afterward a young man of about my age came up and said, “My mother has seven children and doesn’t want any more. She has asked me to ask you how she can stop.”

I was shocked. How could anyone not know? How was it possible that his mother didn’t have access to the information, the services, the supplies? And how could a woman be desperate enough to send her son to ask advice from a complete stranger, a foreigner from England at that?

All women, men and young people deserve a similar chance to be safe rather than sorry. They deserve access to the information, services and supplies they need to decide freely for themselves whether, when and how many children to have.

I stammered out some inadequate answer. But ever since that moment in 1990 I have worked to provide better answers to those same questions, critical ones for far too many millions of women worldwide.

In Tanzania I realized that the differences between women’s lives in the developing world and my own were more than just material – they were fundamental to being a fully realized person. Earlier that year my mother had taken me to a family planning clinic near our home in southern England for counseling on my reproductive health. I emerged with free contraceptive pills and condoms and a head full of understandings on how to use them. “Better safe than sorry,” my mother said.

All women, men and young people deserve a similar chance to be safe rather than sorry. They deserve access to the information, services and supplies they need to decide freely for themselves whether, when and how many children to have. But more than 200 million women lack access to modern contraceptives. They need our commitment to help them get there.

After completing my Masters in Medical Demography, I worked for the UK government as a statistician on domestic health issues. And in 2000, a few months before the Millennium Summit, I transferred to the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). During my time as a regional statistics adviser based in South Africa, I was delighted to find out I was pregnant.

I went to visit my doctor and was told that I was due on 3 March so he would book me for delivery on 23 February. When I asked how he knew I would go into labour that day, he said, “Oh, that’s the date for your C-section.” It seemed that not only did he assume everyone wanted a Caesarean delivery rather than a natural birth, but the clinic also scheduled its C-sections for a Monday so that its personnel could have weekends off!

I found a private midwife and had a natural delivery. But in South Africa, two of three mothers in private hospitals still give birth by C-section, way above the international average. Many women in the developed world are over-medicalized and depersonalized like this during pregnancy, and that is a real problem. But millions of women in developing countries are dehumanized another way, giving birth in conditions little better than a stable. This is a major reason why a woman still dies from pregnancy complications every two minutes somewhere in the world.

After returning from South Africa to DFID’s Policy Division in London, I helped develop ways to improve analysis and use of data for decision-making and monitoring progress, leading the AIDS and Reproductive Health team. Our work with global partners during 2006-2010 helped to reframe the maternal mortality debate. We were able to position it not as a relatively minor and insoluble problem as too many people seemed to think, but rather a fixable problem that was critical to every nation’s well-being. We showed that solutions were known, effective and cost-effective and the benefits of investing in maternal health were far-reaching. The UN Secretary General’s Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, which was launched in September 2010, put maternal, newborn and child health front and centre of the global development agenda.

When I joined the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 2012 as head of the Program and Technical Division, I focused on service delivery to women like that mother in Tanzania. Many people like her just do not know how to control the number and timing of their children, but some decision-makers cite ideology for their reluctance to supply the necessary information and services. Fighting that injustice has made me an advocate for girls and women’s reproductive health.

At the Population Council now, I feel like I’ve come home. In this time of finite resources, we need good data and evidence more than ever to guide investment. Since 1952, the Council has conducted research and delivered solutions that improve lives around the world. Researchers for this independent nonprofit were among the first to argue that meeting the needs of adolescent girls was central to global development. Today, we are building the world’s largest body of research on programs to improve the lives of young girls, learning which interventions are most effective, for which girls, under what conditions and in what contexts. We were among the first to call for a woman-controlled HIV prevention method and are creating new microbicides and multi-purpose products that will allow women to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and HIV.  We are a leading advocate for high-quality, rights-based, voluntary family planning services and supplies. We pioneered the development of long-acting reversible contraceptives, and hundreds of millions of women have used a Council-developed contraceptive method, including the Copper-T IUD, Mirena, and the implants Norplant and Jadelle.

I’m still frustrated that all this comes too late for that woman in Tanzania. But then I remember the Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.” So I urge myself and everyone I meet to focus on planting a tree today that will grow for the next 20 years.