"Find something that you care about, that inspires you, that you’re passionate about, and then find a way to do something about it."
Sixty-five years after its founding by famed industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller 3rd, the New York City-based Population Council remains active in more than 50 countries, utilizing cutting-edge research to create solutions to health and development issues across the globe.
As Women’s Equality Day approaches, we caught up with Population Council President Julia Bunting to find out about her work, what drives her passion for empowering girls and women and the “critical importance” of getting young people to believe in their potential to effect positive change.
How did you get interested in the family planning needs of developing countries?
I participated in a school exchange program in Tanzania when I was 16 years old. One of the students in a class I taught told me his mother had seven children and wanted to know how she could stop having children. At 16, I’d already been given advice about and access to contraception, so the injustice and inequality of that situation really stuck with me. Later, when I was studying at Oxford University, we did a module on demography that fascinated me and reminded me of that experience. So I went on to complete a Master’s Degree in medical demography and have worked in and been committed to these issues ever since.
What have you learned over the past 15 years in the field about the most effective ways to help young women?
If you want to make a change, you need to invest in girls when they’re young. Their life courses are often set early on. You need to be thinking about those early years and particularly the early adolescent years to ensure a healthy and productive transition to adulthood. The early years are when many social constructs and norms begin to shape the lives of many of these girls and affect their future life courses.
Can you give an example?
We’ve been doing a study in Malawi following young girls and boys. We’ve seen that when girls stay in school they perform just as well as boys – if not better. But when they leave school, often at younger ages than boys, their world shrinks. They get married and have children very soon after leaving school, and some may even lose the skills and knowledge they gained. Whereas boys who complete high school continue to engage in the wider world and keep learning. It’s important not just to keep girls in school longer, but even when girls have been successful in formal education we should continue to provide opportunities for them after they leave school.
Before joining the Population Council, you oversaw the British government’s international development policy on sexual and reproductive health and rights. And you were one of the catalysts in the 2012 London Summit, which led to the Family Planning 2020 global partnership, an initiative to enable 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries to have access to contraceptive services. Can you give us an update on that program?
We’ve seen great progress. The latest estimates, which came out last year, are that an additional 24 million women around the world are now using contraception, compared to four years ago. That’s slower than what we would want, but it’s still an impressive and inspiring step forward. We remain confident that we’ve built a good foundation over the past four years and that progress will continue to accelerate.
It’s amazing that you were able to find a career pursing an issue that was important to you as a teenager. Do you have advice for young people today who might want to follow in your footsteps?
Find something that you care about, that inspires you, that you’re passionate about, and then find a way to do something about it. There are so many organizations and so many opportunities to get involved. I started out volunteering. I didn’t come straight to where I wanted to be. I did other work that gave me transferrable skills and knowledge. Once you find something that you care about, don’t ever stop talking about it. Don’t listen to “no.” Keep pursuing your interests. There are a lot of issues that need committed people working on them. Getting young people to think about global development issues, getting them into this space, giving them voice and opportunities to play a role is critically important it we want to solve the world’s biggest challenges.