The reproductive health of women and girls—particularly their ability to access modern contraception—is a critical factor for improving their lives and overall well-being. Preventing unintended pregnancies reduces maternal and infant deaths, decreases unsafe abortions, and allows many adolescent girls to continue their education. Access to and use of contraception also gives women control over their sexuality and reproduction, which results in a healthy, productive life.
At the edge of Lake Ziway—about 100 miles south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa—Aynalem Asmelash oversees a 13-person cleaning team at Afriflora Sher Farms. Sher Farms is the largest rose farm in the world, employing about 15,000 workers who busily tend to the soil, harvest tight-budded flowers, and pack uniform bouquets for shipment around the world.
Aynalem has worked at the farm for eight years. In addition to supervising the cleaning of Greenhouse #30, she works with the farm’s safety committee to ensure the welfare of staff. She is also a volunteer peer educator with Marie Stopes International Ethiopia’s “Fit-For-Work” project, with one hour each work day dedicated to informal counseling of other employees on family planning use and methods.
“I became a peer educator because I wanted to share information with friends and family. I was able to get training with MSI on the benefit of long acting contraceptives, which save women time,” says Aynalem.
Through the “Fit-For-Work” project, Marie Stopes International Ethiopia (MSIE) works with rural employers to provide on-site reproductive health services to employees, including free clinic consultations and contraception. These work sites range from commercial flower farms to sugar and garment factories, where clinicians address the sexual and reproductive health needs of the company employees.
Of Sher Farms’ 15,000 employees, about 80 percent are female, and 75 percent are between the ages of 15 and 30. Young people often travel from even more remote locations to work at Sher Farm and other work sites participating in the MSIE program, where companies report high rates of teen pregnancy and absenteeism.
Sher Flowers has reaped rewards from its partnership with MSIE and investments to ensure employees have access to contraception—and control over their sexuality and reproduction. Managers have observed improved morale and confidence in workers. Women choose to delay pregnancy and work longer, reducing turnover and related operation costs. With more experienced workers, losses from damaged flowers have also been reduced.
What’s more, the company demonstrates its commitment to quality care for workers and removing the barriers preventing them from exercising their rights. During the work day, employees can choose from the full range of contraceptive options that fit their individual needs, and they receive accurate information from clinicians and peers, tailored to farm life.
“The program has impact on personnel and the community,” says Aynalem. “Previously, there were a lot of cases of unwanted pregnancies. Sher employees became known for abandoning children. Now, with [‘Fit-For-Work’] interventions, it is very easy to access family planning services in the clinic during work time, for free. That has changed a lot. Now the cases of unwanted pregnancies are reduced.”
During lunch hour, coffee ceremonies and other informal periods of the work day, Aynalem discusses family planning methods with her colleagues and has convinced about 20 of her peers to start using contraception. Some employees visit the onsite clinic and others opt to go to private clinics for services, which Sher later reimburses.
Many of the farm workers she discussed family planning with had misconceptions about methods, especially about the contraceptive implant; employees who cut and pack flowers all day believed it wouldn’t be comfortable or safe to have the implant and that it would move while they were working. She explained that implants are comfortable, safe and can be taken out easily if needed.
“One of benefits of peer education is most employees are similar in age range and economic, geographic backgrounds,” says Aynalem. “There is transparency, and they are open to talk [to peer educators] versus other supervisors… It wouldn’t be possible to give training to all staff. Since I’m trained, it’s easy to talk to my colleagues during lunch, during meetings, breaks or different social interactions. There is a communal way of life. Housing is very expensive; some staff live together. Relationships are created, and unwanted pregnancies might come. Training helps them to start using family planning and continue relationship without issues.”