Adda has given birth to thirteen children at home in her rural village in northern Cameroon. When asked if she has ever heard of family planning, Adda simply replies “no.”
Halima, a mother of three in Tanzania, doesn’t want any more children. However, her local health center does not provide contraceptives and instead offers referrals. To access family planning services, Halima would have to travel to Temeke Hospital (1 km away), Buguruni (3km away) or Amana Hospital (5 km away).
Laura, a member of Kenya’s under-20 soccer team, says youth in her country are told to abstain from sex until marriage. She and her friends often forego contraception because of the fear of being judged by shopkeepers or health providers if they ask for condoms.
Their stories might sound like stereotypes to some, but they are the reality for millions of women around the world. Lack of information, stock-outs, physical obstacles, and stigma are just some of the many barriers that keep family planning out of women’s hands.
Last year, Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) was formed to improve access to family planning. FP2020’s most visible goal is to enable 120 million additional women and girls—like Adda, Halima, and Laura—to use contraceptives by 2020. The need is real: right now, 222 million women want contraception, and cannot access it. The “120 million” number represents a useful metric by which to measure the impact of FP2020.
But reaching a target number does not necessarily signify true impact. This will come from the improvement FP2020 makes in the lives of those 120 million. FP2020 has an opportunity to set itself apart—to go beyond the numbers—by prioritizing rights over strict quantitative measures. The initiative can only achieve genuine success by focusing on realizing the rights of women and girls to have equitable access to family planning as its primary goal.
Ensuring access to contraceptives is only one piece of respecting and fulfilling the reproductive rights of women and girls. In order to decide if and when to become pregnant, women need comprehensive and quality family planning services.
For decades, we have known that quality programs encourage more women to access services and leads to more satisfied contraceptive users. Quality incorporates client-centered counseling, availability of a range of contraceptive methods, and integrated approaches that reach women where they actually access services.
Unless they focus on quality—not just quantity—FP2020 may fall short in reaching the very people it aims to support. Without counseling, Adda may not know contraceptives are even available. If family planning services are not offered at her local clinic, Halima may not be able to access them. And without greater attention to rights and women’s empowerment, girls like Laura may stay away from services rather than face rumors and community disapproval.
Public health programs and initiatives inherently strive to demonstrate their impact. However, we cannot forget the real women behind the numbers. As reproductive health advocates, we shape these programs to ensure that women and girls have access to the family planning information and services they deserve. If FP2020 receives the necessary financial and political support to expand access to quality family planning services, the initiative will meet the needs of women and girls—and in the process, also reach the numerical goal it’s striving for.