Why Women’s Voices Matter Most When We Talk About Family Planning

Two family planning specialists share the experiences that shaped their approach to reproductive health and explain how highlighting the voices of individual women can make a real difference.

By Beth Schlachter, Executive Director of Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) and Tara Sullivan, Director, Knowledge for Health (K4Health)

A female religious leader looks at contraceptive pills during a course at the local maternity facility on what Islam allows and does not allow in terms of family planning, and on the benefits of family planning in Wajir town on September 26, 2016. AFP /Nicolas Delauney

WE ARE BOTH mothers, advocates and leaders. We are fortunate to hold positions that provide us a platform to improve the lives of women, girls and families. We arrived here because of a lot of hard work, but also because of the people we’ve met, experiences we’ve had and our passion for a woman’s right to good health.

As part of a sprawling Irish-American family (one of seven kids), Beth saw firsthand how lack of access to, and the ability to use contraception, defined her mother’s life — and the lives of her father and siblings. That message hit home when, as a young Peace Corps volunteer, she shared a home with a Guinean midwife who cared for women who were very poor and sometimes unable to financially support the families they had. Her work required long hours, and she had few medical resources — but her care and compassion saved lives every day.

While living on the Thailand-Burma border in the early 2000s, Tara worked in a clinic that served a catchment area of more than 500,000 people. The women coming into the clinic were either undocumented immigrants who worked in the Thai factories, or women who were internally displaced in Burma because their villages had burned down, or due to political violence. Their lives were unstable, and for these women, lacking access to contraceptives could have dire consequences. Those who did not get that access were often coming in for postabortion care services.

Tara worked particularly closely with one young woman, a health worker, who worked seven days a week at the clinic because she cared so much about her clients and wanted to improve their lives. At the time, she had only a high school education and was devoted to keeping up her training so she could save lives.

We often think of those women. Their stories helped shape our lives and work, and inspire us to this day. But the fact that we are telling their stories, instead of hearing directly from them, is a shame. Everyone has a story to tell and should have a platform to tell it — without fear or discomfort, and with love and support.

Family planning can be a deeply challenging and complex subject to communicate, particularly because in so many communities across the globe, sexuality education and contraception remain taboo. This is a real challenge for family planning advocates, as we try to break down these barriers to reach women, girls, men and boys with information and resources that have the potential to improve their lives in meaningful ways.

We have found a powerful communication tool through Family Planning Voices, a global storytelling project that has shared nearly 500 personal stories from people living with these challenges and those working to advance family planning efforts.

Drawing inspiration from Humans of New York, Family Planning Voices pairs unaltered quotes with a photo portrait. The people featured speak about their very personal experiences with family planning — from midwives to leaders of global organizations and government officials.

Based on a survey of story readers, it appears that this approach is reaching people. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of readers said the stories provided them with family planning information that changed their views, opinions or beliefs. Eighty-four percent said it gave them more confidence to discuss issues related to family planning.

As we reflect on these findings, we consider what aspects of family planning could benefit from first-person accounts. In the past year, we’ve observed an unprecedented level of communication between humanitarian and development actors.

This is a hopeful sign of much-needed collaboration, because of the 129 million people around the world in need of humanitarian assistance, approximately one-quarter are women and adolescent girls of reproductive age. Together, there’s much we can do to increase access, provide information and even address taboos. Stories may help us find areas of common ground.

The personal perspectives of those individuals, like Tara’s clinic co-worker or the midwife that Beth lived with, who bear witness to this phenomenon in the regular course of their work, can show us the life and death repercussions of a world without family planning.

About the Authors

Beth Schlachter is executive director of Family Planning 2020 (FP2020), a global movement that supports the rights of women and girls — freely and for themselves — whether, when, and how many children they want to have.

Tara Sullivan is director of the USAID-supported Knowledge for Health (K4Health) Project, which works to improve family planning services in low- and middle-income countries by sharing accurate, up-to-date knowledge and tools with health care providers and program managers.

This piece originally appeared on NewsDeeply on September 27, 2017.

Click to learn more about Family Planning Voices, a K4Health- and FP2020-led initiative.

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