Giving women in poor nations better access to birth control and education would help to slash the number of unwanted births in the developing world, the World Bank said Thursday.
"Fifty-one million unintended pregnancies in developing countries occur every year to women not using contraception," the World Bank said in a statement released on the eve of World Population Day.
But just providing contraceptives would not be enough to bring down the birth rate the 35 countries with the highest birth rates. In those countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Timor-Leste (East Timor), Afghanistan, Djibouti, and Yemen, birth rates top more than five children per mother.
Better access to education is needed too, officials said.
"Promoting girls' and women's education is just as important in reducing birth rates in the long run as promoting contraception and family planning," says Sadia Chowdhury, senior reproductive and child health specialist at the World Bank.
"Women's education provides life-saving knowledge, builds job skills that allow her to join the workforce and marry later in life, gives her the power to say how many children she wants and when. And these are enduring qualities she will hand down to her daughters as well," said Chowdhury, a co-author of a World Bank report on contraception and unintended pregnancies in Africa, eastern Europe and central Asia.
The countries with the highest birth rate also have the world's poorest social and economic results, with low levels of education, high death rates, and extreme poverty, the report says.
Women who have poor access to contraception often turn to abortion as a means of birth control.
But according to the report, around half the 42 million abortions performed annually are unsafe, and some 68,000 women die each year as a result of abortion.
Another 5.3 million suffer temporary or permanent disability.
Abortion is also more costly than contraceptive services, the report says.
"Findings from ... Nigeria suggest that the annual cost of post-abortion care (estimated at 19 million dollars) is approximately four times the cost of contraceptive services (estimated at 4.5 million dollars) to prevent induced abortions; and it consumes about 3.4 percent of total health expenditures," the report says.
"If contraception were provided to the 137 million women who lack access, maternal mortality would decline by 25-35 percent," it says.
The World Bank called for better and expanded information to be made available to a broad range of society -- both men and women -- as well as easier access to quality contraceptive services.
Among the benefits to be had from correctly practised contraception would be fewer maternal and infant deaths, as well as a reduction in the transmission rate of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, it said.