By failing to explicitly support continued access to family planning and contraception, new World Bank policies, as drafted, would undermine a key strategy in the fight against global poverty, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the bank’s board of directors.

“Women’s lack of control over their own fertility keeps millions of them mired in poverty,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “If the World Bank is serious about ending poverty, it needs to enhance women’s ability to make independent choices about having children.”

Traditionally, the World Bank has supported broad reproductive health programs as part of its population policy, but recent developments at the bank raise concerns about its continued support for this strategy. Last week, World Bank staff told reporters that the bank’s managing director, Juan José Daboub, ordered them to remove all references to family planning in a country package requested by Madagascar. Paul Wolfowitz, the president of the World Bank, subsequently denied that the bank was changing its policy on reproductive health, but did not affirm the bank’s support for access to contraception and comprehensive sex education.

A draft World Bank strategy paper on health and population leaked in early April recognizes that population growth is a significant challenge to developing countries’ ability to provide access to basic services. But unlike earlier documents, including the World Bank’s World Development Report of 2007, the draft fails to make explicit reference to the need for access to sex education and contraceptives. This omission would allow for the kind of measures taken on the Madagascar country package. The bank’s board of directors will reportedly review the strategy paper on April 17 and 18.

“The bank’s draft strategy paper fails to give people the key tools they need to participate actively and as equal partners in society,” said Joseph Amon, director of Human Rights Watch’s HIV/AIDS and human rights program. “This week, the World Bank’s board of directors must correct that omission.”