By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent
LONDON, Nov 3 (Reuters) - Giving the millions of women who need it contraception and pregnancy advice will help avoid illness, disadvantage and poverty for current and future generations, Melinda Gates said on Monday.
The co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told Reuters she is encouraged by progress in the past two years in putting family planning at the center of woman and child health programs, but says more needs to be done to ensure all women can choose freely whether and when to have children.
"It makes such a huge difference to families when women can plan," she said in a telephone interview to talk about a report published on Monday on efforts to increase access to contraception advice in poorer countries.
"People around the world care about their children. So when they are educated about how their current children will be healthier, better fed, and better educated -- which we know from long-term research -- that's why they are ready to make changes."
Gates, whose foundation is one of the largest philanthropic funders of global health projects in poor countries, spearheaded an international summit in London in 2012 aimed at making access to birth control a central part of health and development aid projects in developing countries.
The Gates foundation alone pledged $560 million, bringing donor funding pledges for the plan to $2.6 billion.
According to figures from the foundation, less than 20 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa and barely a third of women in South Asia use modern contraceptives.
In 2012, around 80 million women in developing countries had an unintended pregnancy and at least a quarter of those ended up resorting to unsafe abortions.
An initiative launched at the London summit, dubbed Family Planning 2020 (FP2020), aims to extend family planning services by 2020 to 120 million women out of an estimated 220 million around the world who want, but cannot get, reliable access to contraception.
Gates argued that because voluntary family planning allows women to make informed choices about whether and when to have children, it minimizes the number of unintended pregnancies and helps reduce maternal and newborn deaths.
It also increases women's educational and economic chances, making families, communities and populations healthier and wealthier in what she calls the "demographic dividend".
"What we know from the demographic dividend is that around the world, the transition from a low-income to middle-income country happens when parents have fewer children," she said, speaking from Seattle where the Gates foundation is headquartered.
"If you are a low-income country, the only way to get a better educated population of kids is to lower the number of kids you have."
In the progress report released on Monday, the FP2020 said the number of women and girls using modern contraceptives in 69 target developing countries increased by 8.4 million in 2013.
Gates, who is Catholic, has been criticized by some religious groups over her backing of FP2020, which they say contradicts the Vatican's opposition to contraception.
But she said the fight for a woman's right to choose when and whether to have children - and the accompanying economic and health benefits - were too important to be derailed by "critics on the sidelines".
She pointed to a pivotal study conducted in Bangladesh between 1974 and 1996, where researchers tracked the progress of 141 villages, half of which had door-to-door contraception and family planning advice services while the other half didn't.
In the community with access to birth control and advice, "the families were healthier, wealthier and their kids stayed in school longer - all because of family planning," she said.
"And that's the beginning of a virtuous cycle that brings you to the demographic dividend."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)