VIENTIANE, Laos – In a strategic move to graduate the country from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2020, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – commonly known as Laos – has held its First National Conference on Family Planning, with the theme “Investing in Family Planning for Economic Prosperity.”
Initiated by the ministry of health and supported by the UNFPA, the conference brought together more than 200 delegates, including officials from key government ministries, provincial governors and vice governors, health officials and members from both the civil and private sectors.
“This is our vision for the future,” Dr. Phouthone Muongpak, Laos’ deputy minister of health, said in his keynote address.
Though Laos has made huge advances in recent years in addressing maternal mortality and providing better access to contraception, its rates are still alarmingly high on a global scale. Currently, there are still 206 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, a rate well beyond those in developed nations. The adolescent pregnancy rate is close to 1 in 10, contraception prevalence stands at just 50 percent and 20 percent of family planning needs remain unmet nationwide, a rate that climbs even higher in some remote areas.
With Laos identified by the Family Planning 2020 initiative as one of 69 priority countries, its government last year pledged to support the rights of all women to decide freely and for themselves whether to have children, when to have them if they are wanted, and how many to have.
“We believe … that access to contraception is a fundamental human right and has important impacts on gender equality, and access to rights for women and girls,” said Beth Schlachter, FP2020’s executive director, via video link from Washington, D.C.
But it’s not just the well-being of mothers and babies at stake for Laos. Family planning is seen as vital to build a skilled workforce that can sustain the country long-term and to curb escalating pressures on the health system.
Sally Birmingham, the World Bank’s country manager for Laos, was forthright: “This goes beyond a women’s [or] a health issue – this is an economic issue.”
“Increasing our government’s investment in family planning commodities, including contraception, will be cost-effective on so many fronts. Spending $1 on contraceptives can reduce the cost of pregnancy related care by $7, and eventually help save millions of dollars in direct healthcare costs averted,” Dr. Kikeo Chanthboury, Laos’ vice minister of planning and investment, noted.
But still there are challenges. Though the Laotian government has pledged to prioritize family planning and a number of development agencies are on board to offer support, the conference also provided a forum for those who sit on the front lines – provincial governors and health workers – to air their concerns.
For some, the issue of access to contraception and the need for more trained health workers and midwives was paramount. For others, whose provinces are home to ethnic groups living in remote areas, culturally specific information and local language literature and dissemination methods are key.
“You need to bring in all the sectors, civil society, the private sector, government so that they all work together,” UNFPA representative Frederika Meijer told News Deeply. “There’s a member of the Women’s Union in every village, for example, so she could play a proactive role.”
The government, with the support of UNFPA, is now planning to roll out new measures, and has defined the figures needed in a cost implementation plan. The roadmap, which is still being finalized, outlines what is required to help Laos lose its LDC status, including finding $15 million to spend over four years across 18 provinces. The funding will focus on promoting and providing information on long-acting reversible contraception, increasing the number of midwives able to provide such contraception, improving capacity at health centers and campaigns targeting young people.
For those who attended, the conference on May 3-4 is a milestone, the first time the major players have come together to discuss family planning goals for the whole country and in the context of economic and social growth.
“I think we really made history here,” Meijer said. “Before, family planning was mainly seen as simply birth control, limiting the amount of people, and the governors were very concerned they wouldn’t have enough working population. But here, there has been a huge mind shift. They see now that family planning is about saving lives, working on quality of life, and having an influence on economic prosperity and social development.”