On World Contraception Day, we look at the forces that prevent millions of women in developing countries from accessing contraceptives.
Last month, Stembile Mugore visited a hospital in Togo, where she met a 24-year-old woman who had just given birth to her fifth child. Mugore is an advisor to Evidence to Action, USAID’s global flagship for strengthening family planning, and she had come to Togo to follow up with a group of midwives who had been trained by USAID.
“She didn’t know anything about family planning,” Mugore recalled. “She’d never heard of it. She’d had these babies very closely spaced.” After discussing her options with a hospital midwife, the woman decided to receive animplant — a small, rod-shaped form of birth control that is inserted into the arm, and that lasts for up to three years.
“I remember very well the smile and the satisfaction on her face after she’d had this implant,” Mugore said. “And how she wished she had known about it sooner.”
In her unrealized desire to prevent pregnancies, this young mother is hardly alone. 867 million women living in developing countries want to avoid becoming pregnant, but around 222 million of them have unmet contraceptive needs.
Every year on September 26,World Contraception Day seeks to draw attention to this gaping chasm in the landscape of contraceptive use, and to promote awareness of family planning methods so that all women can make informed choices about their sexual health. Ensuring equal contraceptive access can quite literally be a matter of life and death: everyday,approximately 800 women die from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
The forces preventing millions of women from accessing contraceptives vary from region to region, country to country. Unsurprisingly, a key obstacle is often a lack of funds. “Some contraceptives are still very expensive,” says Jagdish Upadhyay, Head of Reproductive Health Commodity Security and Family Planning at the United Nations Population Fund. “To provide [those] kind of resources, which can run into millions of dollars for countries, it’s a big challenge. Then you have to build a whole supply chain … to the facility so they can be distributed.”
Often, supply chains do not extend into remote rural areas, where the poorest segments of low-income populations tend to reside. The journey to a family planning facility might be expensive or physically difficult, requiring women to walk across jagged terrain. As a result, there isa steep equity gap in contraceptive use, especially in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Resources — or lack thereof — can have a direct impact on the variety of contraceptive methods available in developing regions. Methods like
must be administered by skilled professionals, who are relatively expensive to employ.
“Women often don’t have a choice [of contraceptive method],”says Roy Jacobstein, Senior Medical Advisor atIntraHealth International, an organization that seeks to strengthen family planning systems through service providers. “They’re choosinginjectables, but they don’t have the longer acting or permanent methods available to them, generally. Those require a more skilled provider, more intense system, it might entail a minor surgical procedure. It’s easier from the point of view of a provider facing more than 70 or 80 people in the morning to just have them get injections.”
Jacobstein points out that limited choice of contraceptives is better than no choice, which used to be “way predominant in some parts of the developing world because of no availability and access.” Buta broad distribution of contraceptive method use is generally considered to be a positive phenomenon, because it indicates that a given country is able to meet the individualized needs of its women and couples. In Ethiopia, for example, more than 60 percent of family planning users rely oninjectables. In the United States, by way of contrast, the most common method—female sterilization—is only used by 20.8 percent of women.
All of this may paint a very bleak picture for the future of contraceptive access in the developing world, but there is definite cause for optimism. According to Jacobstein, “use of contraception has gone up six-fold in 50 years, and 20-fold in developing countries.” And a number of recently-introduced methods may very well revolutionize the face of family planning in low-income regions. The Sayana Press — a reduced dose of the Depo-Provera shot packaged intoan injectable system with a very thin needle — was released last year and is currently being used in 11 countries. The device is simple to administer and cannot be reused, cutting down risks of infection from sharing. The Sayana Press alsocosts only a dollar.
But it is the implant that might very well become the biggest game-changer in developing regions. Thanks to a global initiative calledFamily Planning 2020, donor volume guarantees have reduced the price of the implant by about half (it originally cost $8.50), and 40 million implants will become available to low resource countries over the course of five years. The implant is a particularly promising method because it has a longer shelf life thaninjectables, which only last for three months. “Any method that is low user responsibility is fairly preferable,” says Mugore. “With implants, women don’t have to come back to the clinic for three years. Women prefer those kinds of methods, because in these countries, facilities are not easy to get to.”
Of course, family planning methods alone cannot bridge the gap ofunmet contraceptive need.
Achieving these goals will require collaborative efforts bygovernments, NGOS, theprivate sector, community service organizations, and advocates. It will take hard work and time. And it will be worth it.
“Family planning, it’s a human rights issue,” says Upadhyay. “It’s a prevention issue. It’s a women’s issue … We need a big movement to bring governments together, bring partners together, raising these issues to make clear the impact of not meeting these needs … How many women will have an unplanned pregnancy, and how many women will die because of that? There should be a movement all over the world.”