As the pandemic forces tens of millions back into absolute poverty, it is more important than ever that private and public organizations invest in both.
Wanting one’s children is the most important indicator of a successful family. It is also the best way to reduce pregnancy termination.
On International Women’s Day, it’s important to keep in mind that in low-income countries, family planning is also a key element of sustainable economic development.
Learning About Women’s Health
Smaller households, with births spaced in accord with the capacity to properly nurture children, are a major contributor to households and families lifting themselves from poverty.
This is only possible when communities, especially women, learn about reproductive health and when they have the social power to put into practice what they learn. This usually means an independent source of income that empowers them to influence and control sexual activity and plan birth spacing.
This is exactly what is happening in communities around the world—including in Nepal, Burkina Faso, India and Haiti.
For example, adolescent girls and women in Nepal and Bihar, India, are learning about menstruation hygiene, the importance of avoiding child marriages, getting a full education and not dropping out of school. The program also emphasizes the benefits of waiting to have children, then spacing the births. The program participants are getting help for gynecological problems—such as uterine prolapse, which is more prevalent among women who have had multiple births and work in difficult, laborious jobs such as agriculture.
Power in Working Together
Earning an income can be the catalyst for women to find their voices. In many rural isolated communities, women are not able to interact with their neighbors, and they often lack a voice in their communities.
Women build relationships through reproductive and other health trainings and savings and credit groups. In these groups, women contribute small amounts each month. When credit is accumulated, they take out small loans at very low interest rates to pay for schooling, health care, improved agricultural implements, livestock and to start small businesses.
Once women start to make money, start their own businesses and have the means to provide for their children, they gain confidence and begin to speak out in more public forums.
Agriculture provides livelihoods for 68 percent of Nepal’s population, accounting for 27 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Nepal Central Bureau of Statistics. Women make up 80 percent of farmers in Nepal, since most of the men leave for higher paying jobs in the Gulf States.
While the pandemic has had an impact on this phenomenon, women are still the primary laborers on these farms. Through the savings and credit groups, these women are moving from subsistence farming to making a profit, expanding their farms, and creating more opportunities for their children.
In Bihar, India, the newly-created 299 savings and credit groups have led to the formation of a women’s federation of more than 4,600 women. These women have formed a network to help other women to learn about reproductive health and family planning. But it has gone much further than that.
The federation has helped bolster the women’s confidence and now some are running for political office, postponing marriage, starting small businesses and attending college. As soon as the pandemic hit, women in the federation started a business of sewing masks and making sanitizer out of their homes. The federation members are leaders of their communities and are active in advocacy against the dowry system, child marriage and barring girls from education.
Community Health Volunteers
In Burkina Faso, reproductive health training is conducted by community health volunteers (CHVs). These women organize and lead training sessions on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, pre- and post-natal care and more.
Critically, CHVs also introduce women to savings and credit groups. For example, in Burkina Faso, Mali and other countries in Africa in which we work, women generally do not own land or cattle. Loans from savings and credit groups are used to purchase small animals like chickens and fish and seeds to grow fruits and vegetables.
Over time, these independent sources of income play a significant role in gender relations, including child planning. The confidence and skills they learn as CHVs, members of savings and credit groups and as community mobilizers are also helping them to grow their farms and expand into other businesses.
In violence-ravaged Haiti, where women often do not have access to government run health clinics, CHVs travel from one village to another providing advice, helping refer people to clinics, and acting as trusted neighbors.
Women who participate in reproductive health and livelihood programs come to possess the knowledge and economic standing within their families and communities to plan the number and timing of their children. This is critical to reducing child malnutrition, with its suffering and long-lasting impacts on the ability to learn and work. Over time, investing more in fewer children builds the capacity for higher-productivity, more remunerative and more satisfying employment.
Family planning and sustainable economic growth are two sides of the same coin. As the pandemic forces tens of millions back into absolute poverty, it is more important than ever that private and public organizations invest in both.