We Heart Reproductive Rights!

Emily Hanna - Senegal

December 11, 2011

How does one talk about family planning and reproductive rights in a country where it’s taboo to acknowledge that a woman is pregnant?

Loudly and enthusiastically, as it turns out, with lots of important people for an audience and plenty of media coverage to help spread the word. This uncharacteristic openness was but one of the surprises I encountered while volunteering at the 2011 International Conference on Family Planning in Dakar from November 28th to December 2nd. A product of collaboration between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, this conference, held for the second time ever (it was first staged in Kampala, Uganda in 2009), brought together over 2,000 participants from around the world to discuss strategies and best practices in addressing the family planning crisis currently contributing to global rates of poverty, mortality, and female subjugation.

But allow me to back up, because before I was invited to volunteer at the ICFP 2011, I did not fully comprehend the extent of family planning issues and how they affect our society – and despite the passionate dedication to the problem displayed by most of the conference attendees, I don’t think many other people do, either.

Let me hit you with some stats*:

– On October 21st, 2011, the world population passed 7 billion, confirming the fact that we are in the midst of the most rapid population growth in history.

– An estimated 215 million women in the developing world have an unmet need for modern contraception.

– About 20 million women have unsafe abortions each year, three million who need – but don’t receive – care for abortion-related complications.

– And if the need for family planning and maternal/newborn health services were met simultaneously:

* unintended pregnancies would drop by more than two-thirds (75 million in 2008 to 22 million/year), and unsafe abortions  would decline by 73%, from 20 million  to 5.5 million/year.

* maternal deaths would drop by 71%.

* newborn deaths would drop by 53%.

These numbers are sobering by themselves. But it must also be taken into account that family planning is about so much more than stemming rapid population growth and improving reproductive health rates. When a woman can choose whether or not to have a baby, she takes control of her own health and her own future. She is able to work, and becomes a driver of the economy instead of staying home with the children while depending financially on another. She can afford to educate her kids, and her girls will follow in her footsteps in terms of smart reproductive choices. Fewer unplanned babies mean fewer emotional and fiscal strains placed on families, reducing domestic violence and poverty. Less people also equals less pollution and less consumption of natural resources, taking the pressure off our poor, beleagured environment. Using physical barriers like condoms (male and female!) protects against the spread of sexually transmitted infections and, most importantly, HIV/AIDS. And giving women the right to manage their own bodies as they see fit empowers them to be independent and find gender equality on other levels, too.

No matter what global issue you’re passionate about – climate change, women’s rights, education, hunger, poverty, disease prevention – there is always a connecting thread that ties back into the issue of family planning. Affect one, and you affect them all. So it was heartening to see literally thousands of people congregating in the massive conference center at Le Meridian President, Dakar’s swankiest hotel, for 5 days of seminars, discussions, presentations, and arguments all focused on solving the family planning crisis at hand.

The guest list was varied and, frequently, rather entertaining. Gung-ho International Planned Parenthood Federation activists lined up to receive their name badges alongside stately African dignitaries. Young, inquisitive journalists ate lunch at the same tables as the ancient founders of venerable nonprofits. There were participants from the U.S., Europe, Asia, and nearly every African country (though, strangely, almost none from Latin America.) The official languages of the conference were English and French, but dozens of others could be heard echoing around the marble foyer of the entrance hall as people flowed in the front doors every morning. Best of all, many participants eschewed drab buisness attire for more lively traditional dress; the halls were dotted with Afghani men in silky beige tunics, Bangladeshi women in peacock-colored saris, and, most magnificently, African ladies in flowing, spangled robes of every color, massive headwraps blocking the view of those seated behind them in the sessions, their nationality discernible by each fabric’s particular pattern or color scheme.

Lucy Blumberg, Elias Estabrook and I were the three Global Citizen Year volunteers in attendance, and in between the grunt work of moving boxes and shepherding lost participants through the labyrinthine conference center, (while switching constantly between French and English,) we somehow found the time to attend a few of the sessions.

What I took away from the whole experience is this: there is a lot of hard work ahead of us before the family planning crisis is under control. Stigma, ignorance, lack of access to family planning resources, and the expense of aid programs are all considerable obstacles that must be surmounted. But there are also people out there willing to tackle these problems, and they’re finding innovative ways to do so every day.

Take Zara, a 20-year-old Nigerian woman who Lucy, Elias and I were privileged enough to meet, for example. We had attended a presentation by the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International, who have partnered up to train youths in developing countries to educate their peers about safe sex and provide free contraceptives to those in need. The project organizer’s initial explaination of this program was exciting enough in its own right – then Zara, a quiet girl in a modest chador, was called upon to speak. And speak she did (in near-perfect English) about her involvement with the program as a peer educator. She taught sex education courses to dozens of other teens in her area, distributed contraceptives and birth control to people at high risk of unplanned pregnancy or STIs, and even composed catchy songs about practicing safe sex to help people remember the basics (“abstain, abstain, use the pill, use condoms” goes a verse she performed for us). Now, as a young woman, Zara is in the process of becoming a nurse practitioner and hopes to run her own clinic someday. It was awe-inspiring enough to encounter someone barely out of their teens, from an impoverished background, who had already accomplished so much. But then an audience member asked why she had decided to become a peer educator, and Zara revealed that at a young age, she had lost her own mother to AIDS. So many years later, recounting this experience still brings tears to her eyes and makes her steady voice tremble. But speaking about her mother also seems to rekindle the fire of determination that drives her every day. And, looking at her face, we could not only see the scars left by the devastating effects of the family planning crisis – but also traces of the indomitable strength of those dedicated to fighting it.

After a week of listening to facts and figures and piling stacks of brochures promoting female condoms and emergency contraceptive pills, after surreptitiously slipping many complimentary pens into our bags and taking full advantage of the omnipresent trays of hors d’oeuvres, after meeting some of the most inspiring, dedicated activists and brightest luminaries in the field of reproductive health, and fielding endless questions regarding the location of the lunch tent, Lucy, Elias, and I headed back to our villages to recommence our regular apprenticeships and carry on with our Global Citizen Year.

But I’d like to think that the significance of the conference lingers on, though the tents have been packed up and the posters taken down, and the Malawian ministers and NGO ambassadors sent back to whence they came. I want to believe that the lessons I’ve learned and observations I’ve made will inform how I choose to conduct my future, and that they may influence other people’s choices too, someday. But most of all, I’m hoping that the optimistic spirit of the gathering won’t dissipate with the next news cycle, but continue to live on in the hearts and minds of everyone touched by the ICFP 2011: the attendees, the financiers, the journalists, the volunteers, and (most of all) the women for whose betterment the entire conference was organized. For it is only with all of us, working in synchronicity, that any positive changes will ever come to pass.

*All statistics taken from the 2011 World Population Data Sheet (Population Regerence Bureau) and Adding It Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Family Planning and Maternal and Newborn Health (Guttmacher Institute & UNFPA, November 2011).

Emily Hanna