03/08/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

On International Women's Day, Let's Empower Young People

March 8 is International Women's Day, and as advocates from around the world gather at UN headquarters for the annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting, I am reminded that around the world the fight for equality continues.

From Philadelphia to Nigeria, in each of the countries where I have lived and worked, women and especially young people continue to lack sufficient access to essential health care that would enable them to prevent unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and HIV/AIDS.

Unable to depend on governments and national health care systems, communities around the world have taken birth control access into their own hands. On a recent visit to Latin America, I met with a group of young people trained in Planned Parenthood Global's Youth Peer Provider model. The program trains young people to provide their peers with basic contraceptive counseling and consistent access to over-the-counter contraceptive methods.

"I do this work because my peers trust me and I do not judge them," a young woman told me.

Our model recognizes that in rural areas and urban slums information doesn't mean much without access. The Youth Peer Provider model seeks to address these issues, helping young people provide information and access to modern pregnancy and STD prevention methods.

For young women in particular, this access to information and supplies means the ability to delay motherhood, stay in school and lead healthy and productive lives. The model is effective, but we can't keep up with the need. In order to truly promote the healthiest generation of young people, governments need to invest in family planning programs and the U.S. needs to make support for family planning a central pillar of foreign aid.

These are sound investments. Current U.S. funding for international family planning programs provides birth control to more than 30 million women and couples around the world. These services and supplies help to avert 9.4 million unintended pregnancies, 4 million abortions, the majority of which are unsafe, and prevent the deaths of 22,000 women each year

It is this strategic interest as much as an issue of women's rights that motivated the Obama administration to make family planning programs a key foreign policy priority. Under Secretary Hillary Clinton's leadership, the State Department made women's health a central part of global health programs and has worked to fully integrate these programs into U.S. foreign policy.

As John Kerry takes over as Secretary of State, we have a renewed opportunity to draw attention to the 222 million women worldwide who want to prevent unintended pregnancy but lack access to modern birth control. Of course, we expect and hope that Secretary Kerry will sustain Secretary Clinton's legacy, but we also know that it's not enough to simply maintain the status quo.

And it takes money. Over the last three years, anti-women's health politicians in Congress have attempted to cut funding for global reproductive health programs with each budget cycle.

We know that expanding access to family planning services saves lives. Evidence shows that we could cut maternal deaths by nearly one-third globally by making sure women across the globe have access to contraception.

That's why we need strong leadership from the State Department and a robust budget approved by Congress. We must continue to push for better policies and expanded access to vital health care for women and girls around the world, just as we do for women here at home.