“Women Need It and Demand It”

How providing family planning in crisis contexts can support the health, resilience, and prosperity of every country in an interconnected world

Interview with Jennifer Schlecht, Senior Advisor, Emergency Preparedness and Response for FP2020

With the RAISE initiative in conflict-affected North Uganda. Photo credit: Jennifer Schecht.

The world is constantly changing. Today, conflict, crises, and migration are prominent in our news headlines, our national and international policy discussions, and increasingly are part of forward-looking dialogue. The plight of displaced women and girls is especially striking — as their numbers reach record highs.

In April 2018, Family Planning 2020 welcomed Jennifer Schlecht as Senior Advisor, Emergency Preparedness and Response. This position developed as a result of an exciting partnership with CARE to help FP2020 better respond to the needs of commitment countries and to ensure contraception is considered as an essential service in humanitarian settings and response. It will help drive action to deliver on commitments made during the 2017 Family Planning Summit.

Jennifer Schlecht has worked in international relief and development for almost 15 years, across diverse humanitarian contexts. Most recently she worked on Sexual and Reproductive Health at the Women’s Refugee Commission — specifically focusing on research and advocacy around family planning access, adolescent reproductive health, and child marriage. She also helped to develop and lead the participation of the Inter-Agency Working Group for Reproductive Health in Crises’ presence at last year’s FP Summit.

Jennifer Schecht (white shirt, kneeling in the middle) with data collection team in North Uganda, outside Kitgum. Photo credit: Jennifer Schecht.

First, why is family planning important in humanitarian response and crisis settings?

Because women need and demand it. We can’t neglect these populations just because they seem harder to reach. When women and adolescent girls are displaced by conflict or disaster, it can be a very dangerous time to be pregnant or to give birth. Health systems collapse at the time that risks to people’s well-being are highest, including their sexual and reproductive health. When displaced, we see across numerous contexts and settings that women demand contraception. They desperately need and have a right to these services.

Because these are humanitarian contexts, many times, we are caught in a debate about whether family planning is lifesaving enough when other health issues are so urgent. But I believe it is. If you ask women in these settings, the same women who have seen their sisters, aunties, or friends die in childbirth, or from unsafe abortion, or struggle through pregnancy during such difficult times, they know sexual and reproductive health services are lifesaving and that the ability to prevent unintended pregnancy is paramount. There’s a long history of not having women at the table when prioritizing and conceiving humanitarian interventions. To not address those needs in an early phase of an emergency is negligent.

What sparked your interest in family planning?

Family planning is key to empowerment. No matter where you work, I find this to be true.

Unplanned pregnancies further entrench cycles of poverty, keep girls from an education and women out of the workforce, not to mention introducing unnecessary and preventable risks to death and disability. We lose the potential of so many women and girls, and sentence communities and individuals to poverty by not providing access to family planning. This is especially the case during crises and recovery. It’s such a loss to them, it’s a loss to us.

What does emergency preparedness and response mean in the context of FP2020’s work? What do we need to do to make family planning part of humanitarian or crisis response?

Disasters and crises affect more people today than at any point since World War II. Most countries are affected by, or at risk of, disasters in some form, and the majority of FP2020 countries in the bottom quintile are deeply affected by this vulnerability. We need to think about crises as a real issue or challenge that countries face, and support them to examine the resilience of their approaches or to better reach women and girls displaced or affected by instability.

With community-based organizers in Manila, conducting a “community mapping” exercise related to disaster risk reduction and preparedness. Photo credit: Jennifer Schecht.

Countries can be better supported to think through preparedness actions so that they bounce back more easily from regional or localized crisis, and maintain their development gains. Additionally, maximizing our reach to populations already affected by crises will ultimately serve the countries’ Family Planning 2020 and Sustainable Development Goals.

Reaching women and girls affected by crises with family planning must be understood as a critical rights and equity issue, an effective approach to accelerate country progress, and a minimum standard. At a global and country level, we can build knowledge around family planning as an accepted lifesaving SRH intervention in a crisis, as outlined in the Minimum Initial Service Package for Reproductive Health, and support preparedness and response efforts to assure such access. Meeting family planning needs during an emergency will reduce preventable death, and will also help to reduce the compounded health risks faced by women and girls during a crisis and displacement

Why is it important that FP2020 focus explicitly on humanitarian work? How does it fit into FP2020’s broader goals and mission?

FP2020 has excellent convening power. By engaging on this topic, the initiative contributes to important conversations that need to happen at the nexus of humanitarian and development work. We’re starting to see the way that services are improved when entities work together that don’t typically collaborate.

I remember when FP2020 launched — I remember the first FP Summit, and feeling discouraged that rights weren’t a prominent part of the first round of FP2020 commitments. There was a clear gap from my perspective: there was no talk of those who are hard to reach, or of migration, or populations displaced by crises.

But now — in the past three years specifically — attention to rights, quality, and reaching the hard-to-reach has skyrocketed. We had real momentum and interest in humanitarian contexts leading into the 2017 Family Planning Summit, and were able to mobilize. Humanitarian needs were taken seriously by FP2020 and Summit organizers, and we have now seen new actors stepping into the space. I think we are on the verge of some real solutions.

What are your hopes and dreams for this position? What do you hope to accomplish, and where might it lead?

I want to see more women and girls affected by crises have access to family planning.

I am hopeful that we may see the global FP community join with humanitarian actors and national/ sub-national bodies to figure out solutions that bring family planning to populations affected by crises — whether through preparedness or response actions.

It would mean so much if countries like Chad, DRC, Pakistan, and others incorporated their existing humanitarian efforts and successes into their FP2020 commitments and share their learning. Many of these countries have made great progress in humanitarian settings, and this progress can be part of the FP2020 conversation. Right now, some countries see humanitarian efforts and family planning as separate — I would love to see them form a more cohesive picture, and to be rewarded for doing so.

At a global level, I hope that we can identify best practices with regard to roll out of family planning as part of the Minimum Initial Service Package, and support transition to more comprehensive SRH services.

I hope in this year, and those to come we see family planning become what is done. That it is not a question — it is the norm.

And I would love for people to stop asking if family planning is life-saving.

Visit www.familyplanning2020.org to learn more.

With community outreach workers in South Sudan after a basic training on reproductive health. Photo credit: Jennifer Schecht.