“Knowing is not enough; you must act and let your government know that family planning is a right and saves lives,” said Maurice Middleberg of the Global Health Council at a recent event in Chapel Hill.
MDGs 4, 5, and 6 – reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, respectively – all have obvious connections to health and woman’s reproductive health. An unmet need for family planning, which is measured as the percentage of women of reproductive age who desire to space or limit their births but are not using contraception, can undermine the achievement of these goals.
For example, very early motherhood not only increases the risk of dying in childbirth, it also jeopardizes the well-being of surviving mothers—and their children, too. A child born to an adolescent mother has a greater risk of dying in infancy or childhood.
“Contraception is the best-kept secret in HIV prevention,” said Dr. Cates, who cited research that found that “current contraceptive use in sub-Saharan Africa prevents an estimated 577,200 unplanned births to HIV-infected mothers” and thus prevents the birth of an estimated 173,000 HIV-infected infants each year.
Family planning can help meet the other MDGs, including ending poverty and hunger (Goal 1); providing universal primary education (Goal 2); and promoting gender equity (Goal 3). Young mothers frequently miss out on education and socio-economic opportunities. Being able to make their own decisions about family planning and reproductive health can empower women and improve gender equity. When women are given equal opportunities for education, health, and employment, they are more likely to invest in the education and care of their children. This helps them break the cycle of poverty, hunger, and disease.
Although the MDGS don’t include any formal targets for sexual and reproductive health, the UN Millennium Project has stated that the MDGs cannot be achieved in low-income countries without access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning. The panelists agreed that family planning is a cost-effective intervention that provides broader positive benefits for development.
But the real strength of their presentations lay in the personal stories behind the statistics. Middleberg closed the discussion with a story about a woman in Latin America who told him that she loves her husband but was afraid of him every time he touched her. Now, after having undergone sterilization, she no longer worries and can love her husband with no fear of becoming pregnant.
Lisa Basalla, MPH, is a research associate with the Carolina Population Center. She graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a MPH focusing on reproductive and adolescent health. She has worked with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Communications Programs on its reproductive health knowledge management project as well as a HIV-prevention behavior change communication project in Malawi.
Photo: A billboard promoting family planning in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia. Courtesy flickr user olerousing.