Pushing Forward in the Global Fight for Contraceptive Access

Ahead of International Women’s Day, we must celebrate, support and sustain a movement that strives to make contraceptive access a reality for every woman and girl, says Ashley Wolfington of the International Rescue Committee.

Written by Ashley Wolfington Published on March 07, 2017 Read time Approx. 4 minutes
In various parts of the developing world, organizations and healthcare champions are helping women get access to contraceptives, allowing them to make healthier choices for themselves and their families. Photo by AFP/Roberto Schmidt

A current of action and activism is surging in the U.S. to protect women’s access to contraception, triggered by a political environment in which women’s rights to reproductive healthcare is at risk. The movement understands that family planning protects women from unintended pregnancy, poor health and maternal mortality. But contraception does more than that – it allows women to lead their desired lives.

In the U.S., the movement is imbued with some despair, as threats to reproductive choice loom ahead. For many, “We won’t go back” has become a rallying cry. But this demand for contraceptive access isn’t just happening in the U.S. – it’s happening globally. It is happening in crisis-affected countries where the norm is defined by high rates of maternal mortality. We know that contraception saves lives, yet it remains marginalized in humanitarian health policy and action. Still, this doesn’t stop health providers, individuals and advocates from forging the only path available to them – forward.

In many countries, often affected by conflict, the call for reproductive rights is a source of optimism and learning. It is a reminder that women and girls want access to contraception – no matter where they live, their religious background or their socioeconomic status. As the importance of contraceptive access takes center stage, the various movements are reminders that this fight is a universally necessary one for every woman and girl – and that collective change is underway, overcoming every type of challenge imaginable.

At the International Rescue Committee (IRC), we have seen proof firsthand. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Chad and Myanmar, women and girls are receiving quality access to comprehensive contraception for the first time, including pills, intrauterine devices and implants. Governments such as that of the DRC have made commitments to expand access to contraception. Health providers are learning how to provide quality intrauterine device insertions in makeshift clinics in refugee camps. Family Planning 2020, a global movement, notes that more than 300 million women and girls are using contraception in the world’s 69 poorest countries. Women and men, health providers, governments, community leaders and activists are coming together to expand contraceptive access in places where it had been nearly nonexistent.

One such champion is Dr. Jessica Kakesa, who grew up in eastern DRC. She recalled watching Rwandan refugees cross the border into her country in 1990. She saw women giving birth along the road. She saw women in her own family who weren’t allowed to take contraception, and suffered fatal consequences as a result.

“I’ve seen how it’s really a burden for women who cannot make decisions for themselves,” she said. “They’ve been denied that right, and now it’s having consequences from morbidity to death. We are still not at that point where a woman can decide to opt for family planning, no matter how many kids she has, no matter her age, no matter who she is.”

Dr. Kakesa is hoping to change that. She works with the IRC to help expand free access to comprehensive family planning across the conflict-ravaged eastern region of DRC, which includes areas that suffer the highest rates of maternal mortality in the country. In Tanganyika Province, a few clinics introduced free comprehensive contraception for the first time last year. Demand immediately spiked within the first few months, reaching 400 new clients in June alone.

In Ethiopia, we met religious community leaders who are ensuring women in their villages have color-coded calendars that remind them of important appointments – including their appointments to receive contraception. It is a matter of interest to them, one man said, because it supports the health and well-being of their entire community.

In the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, refugees who fled Burundi are receiving free contraception, ranging from implants to intrauterine devices to pills. Most of the women are opting for long-acting methods, because they do not know when they will go home – or if they ever will – and they worry about providing an education, life and future for the children they already have.

In northeastern Nigeria, a woman who fled Boko Haram came to the IRC clinic in the Bakassi refugee camp to access contraception. Becausethe region is experiencing famine-like conditions, and she lost her first childshe wanted to plan her next child. “I don’t want my child to suffer,” she said.

As we reflect on the importance of contraception, we must celebrate, support and sustain a movement that makes contraceptive access a reality for every woman and girl. Women have spoken and – regardless of where they live – they demand the power, health, education, safety and economic well-being that comes with contraception.

Across the world, these paths are being forged by champions who reject a status quo in favor of a vision they’ve never seen. In the U.S., a determined fight is brewing to ensure that we won’t go back. As long as we care about the rights and health of women and girls, the only option for all of us is to go forward.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls.