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Our History

For 65 years, Pathfinder has supported women, young people, and communities by expanding access to sexual and reproductive health care and opening the door to opportunities to thrive. 

Today, Pathfinders live and work in more than 20 countries in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, building trusted networks of reproductive health services for millions of people around the world every year. We are steadfast in our conviction that all people, regardless of where they live, have the right to decide whether and when to have children, to exist free from fear and stigma, and to lead the lives they choose.

Our mission is big and bold, and we are dedicated to pushing ourselves and our organization to continue forging new pathways for access to sexual and reproductive health wherever the need is greatest. We are proud of our many successes, but we know it’s not possible to fully embrace the bright future we envision without understanding and reckoning with our past.

Originally founded as the Pathfinder Fund in 1957 by Clarence Gamble, the organization served as a vehicle to continue his work on expanding access to new, important family planning tools. But it is well documented that Gamble’s involvement in the practice of eugenics persisted through the first half of the twentieth century, coinciding with the founding of Pathfinder. Into the 1960s, racially biased and unscientific beliefs clearly influenced his work in the US and in the Global South and were manifest in his efforts to limit or reduce birthrates in certain communities, regardless of whether or not the people in those communities expressed consent with his methods. Though Gamble died in 1966, the influence of his beliefs could be traced in Pathfinder’s work into the 1970s, generally under the banner of “population control,” a euphemism adopted by governments and family planning organizations at the time.

We are working to understand our history—and the broader history of the family planning movement—more deeply, to interrogate how racism, white supremacist ideology, eugenics, and population control influenced early activities in our organization and our movement. We have sought to understand the views and actions of early movement leaders like Gamble, Margaret Sanger, and others more fully so that we can determine how best to address this legacy going forward. We now have a better, clearer understanding of our history that enables us to lead the way into the future with a people-centered approach and a gender justice lens—helping to build a world where people everywhere don’t just survive, but thrive. We are holding ourselves accountable to reflect on and reckon with our history—to reconcile it with the bold future we envision for our organization and the people we serve.

The courage and dedication shown by all Pathfinders and our local partners have made huge contributions to ensuring that everyone, regardless of where they live, has the ability and the opportunity to make their own decisions about their bodies and their futures.

Looking to the future, it is clear that the roles of women and young people have never been more essential. They are on the front lines of the greatest global challenges. At Pathfinder, we are meeting the challenge of the moment: firm in our convictions, dedicated to our mission and driven by our country-led leadership and commitment to trusted partners. We are constantly adjusting and adapting to our changing world. Meeting the needs of the people we serve, building trusted networks of critical services that support millions of people around the world – year after year.

Milestones in Our History

In the 1980s, we continued to lead the global fight to recognize the right of every individual to make their own sexual and reproductive choices—even taking the US government to court.

In the 1980s, we filed suit against the United States government, challenging the “Mexico City Policy” that denied US funds to any foreign non-governmental organization that “performs or promotes abortion as a method of family planning.” Unfortunately, the courts did not invalidate the policy in our case or others, but together we did succeed in forcing critical clarifications that confirmed that US government funds can support postabortion care services and recognized the right of US-based NGOs to use non-US funds for abortion services.

In 1994, Pathfinder played a key role in convening the pivotal International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt. There, the global community committed to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights related to sexual and reproductive health.

Remarks presented in Cairo by Holly M. Carter on behalf of Pathfinder notably mention the voluntary use of family planning and prioritizing local communities in development.

In 2005, we took the US government to court, again to defend global access to family planning services.

In 2005, in response to US legislation that placed sweeping restrictions on US organizations implementing US-funded HIV programs overseas—including the requirement for these organizations to pledge their opposition to prostitution to remain eligible for federal HIV & AIDS funding—we took the government to court again—and the US Supreme Court finally ruled in our favor in 2015.

Our pioneering work continues to change lives around the world, helping drastically increase contraceptive use, reduce maternal and child mortality, reduce the spread of HIV infections, boost gender equality, and lay the groundwork for transformational social change for generations to come.

In Peru, where we worked from 1983 to 2019, modern contraceptive use increased fivefold from 1970 to 2015 and pregnancy-related deaths fell by 73 percent between 1990 to 2015.

Our work in the country included expanding access to contraceptives, building the skills of health providers, and strengthening medical training systems, particularly leadership of Peru’s national accreditation and recertification program for health providers. We implemented an effective model for postabortion care in public hospitals that has been institutionalized by the public health system and is still saving the lives of women and girls today.

In Ethiopia since 2005, we have partnered with the ministry of health to roll out youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services at 419 health facilities.

The ministry of health is now scaling this model nationally. This massive effort included training 39,000 peer educators and 12,000 service providers on youth-responsive services, with more than 8 million young people having received these services and 25 million young people having received information about sexual and reproductive health. Given our reach and network in Ethiopia, the ministry of health has relied on Pathfinder for support with sustaining health care during both the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil war.

In Mozambique, the government took ownership of and scaled up a program started by Pathfinder that provides information on reproductive health and prevention of HIV to young people via text message.

The program reached more than 2 million young people during the decade of Pathfinder support and millions more since. The government adapted the program during the pandemic to reach Mozambicans of all ages with information about COVID-19 and works with Pathfinder to provide reproductive health care in all provinces.

In India, Pathfinder led a groundbreaking program, called PRACHAR, which supported millions of young couples and adolescents.

PRACHAR helped them to adopt healthy reproductive behaviors and tackle social norms that pressure them to marry and have children before they are ready. Young women who took part in the program married almost three years later than those who did not. The program trained more than 1,000 frontline health workers and 20 local partners and the Bihar government over a period of 12 years, resulting in a highly sustainable model that other organizations have sought to replicate locally and globally.