We must recognise that family planning saves lives in crises

by Melanie Ward | International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Tuesday, 11 July 2017 00:00 GMT

Pregnant teenagers stand at the entrance of a maternity home in Jinotega city, some 160 km (99 miles) north of Managua, Nicaragua, in this 2013 archive photo. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

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This week’s London Family Planning Summit must put women and girls in crises at the forefront

By Melanie Ward, Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy, International Rescue Committee

Half of the 65 million people across the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and disaster are women and girls. In Northeastern Nigeria alone, over a million women and girls have been displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency.

While the kidnapping of the Chibok girls remains the most high profile attack in Nigeria, women and girls are routinely subjected to early and forced marriages, rape, and abductions. With over a third of health clinics destroyed by the fighting, women and girls are vulnerable to unsafe abortions from unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and complications during pregnancy and labour, which can all lead to infertility or maternal death.

Hadija was four months pregnant when she fled Boko Haram in late 2016. After weeks of trekking through the bush, while carrying her oldest son on her back and without sufficient food or water, Hadija made it to Bakassi Camp in Maiduguri, where she gave birth.

Though happy to have made it to relative safety, Hadija has an uncertain future. After hearing about the IRC’s family planning services for women and girls in the camp, she decided to start using contraception:

“I decided to come for family planning, because I don’t want to have another baby soon, in this circumstance with insufficient food, little space and no freedom.”

On 11th July, international governments, donors and service providers will gather in London to take action and commit funding for family planning. The summit, co-hosted by the UK’s Department for International Development, the UN Population Fund and the Gates Foundation, is a significant opportunity to accelerate progress towards the goal of reaching 120 million women and girls with contraception by 2020 – a pledge made by participants at the last summit in London five years ago.

But achieving this ‘FP2020’ goal will be impossible without reaching women and girls in humanitarian crises. By July 2016, the target was nearly 20 million short from the figure expected at this stage. Evidence shows that progress has been stronger in countries with high levels of resource, so it will take a concerted effort from the UN, global health funding bodies like the World Bank, innovators like the Gates Foundation, governments and NGOs to get back on track.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) supports women and girls like Hadija with family planning services in Nigeria and 20 other countries. We know that women and girls in emergencies need access to contraception, maternal and newborn care, prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and clinical management of rape from the very beginning of an emergency response.

We also understand that family planning is not only a lifesaving intervention, it is a tool of empowerment. It enables women and girls in crises to decide freely the number and spacing of their children for the first time in their lives. It is about a woman’s most basic right – to control her own body. Over the summer of 2016, the IRC saw around 450 new family planning clients in Nigeria but in the first quarter of 2017, after word spread, over 2,300 women and girls received a method of family planning.

It can also be transformative, seizing the opportunity that emergencies bring to generate change and set the stage for rebuilding efforts. In northeastern Nigeria, 84% of women and girls using contraceptive methods provided by the IRC used a new method such as the injection.

Finally, family planning in crises is cost-effective; it reduces the cost of long-term health care, and contributes to better outcomes for recovery and resilience in the event of future emergencies.

The Summit in London on Tuesday provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring leaders from around the world together to finally put women and girls in crises and emergencies at the centre of global family planning efforts. To do this, participants need to commit to enshrining reproductive health in all phases of emergency response and to fund accessible, flexible family planning services in emergencies. Governments with family planning action plans should also include women and girls affected by crises, and work with health authorities to guarantee access to family planning through national emergency response plans.

Control over your body and your future is a universal right. Let’s make sure that the most vulnerable women and girls, like Hadija, are not left behind.