Bringing Men to the Table, and Other Insights

The blogosphere and the global health world has been buzzing with reports from the 50th annual international family planning conference, dubbed “Full Access, Full Choice,” which took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this past week. Plenary speakers Melinda Gates and Dr Kesete-birhan Admasu, Ethiopia’s Minister of Health, opened the event by commending the family planning community for its substantial progress and renewed commitment to increasing access to contraception for 120 million new users by 2020.

The conference was bustling with participants from 120 countries, including researchers, UN agencies, private providers and many others. From within the organized chaos there emerged several key themes about international family planning:

  1. Youth are Too Often Left Out of the Conversation. In the opening ceremony, Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, the UNFPA Executive Director, emphasized the importance of addressing the rights and choice of young users, especially pre-adolescents and those married young. Researchers shared their findings on unmet need among youth, programmers presented innovative approaches to creating ‘youth-friendly’ services, and governments committed resources to increasing access for young people. Most importantly, youth leaders presented their perspective on early pregnancies and major barriers to access. Catherine Bonga Baye, an emerging youth leader from the Republic of Cameroon, expressed that youngest contraceptive users can provide critical input to the design of effective family planning programs.
  2. We Must Bring Men to the Table. In 1994 the family planning community first publicly recognized that the focus of family planning programs must be expanded beyond women. Presenters at the 2013 conference talked about longitudinal workshops, community engagement, and marketing programs as effective methods to promote spousal communication. However, the conference generally lacked a focus on how men actually want to engage with family planning, and how we can best inform and involve them. Chris Purdy, the Executive Vice President of DKT International, made the frank but often overlooked point that men around the world are interested in sex, and that people use contraception to enjoy sex without worrying about pregnancy. He challenged the family planning community with a provocative proposition: Sell contraception with sex. His talk was enlightening, and you can check out more of his thoughts on this topic here.
  3. Postpartum Women Need More Attention. There was significant emphasis on family planning integration at the conference, and the fact that postpartum women present a key opportunity to increase contraceptive prevalence. Interactive discussions focused on integration scale up, and presentations demonstrated new training practices for immediate postpartum IUD insertion. More and more evidence indicates that family planning integration is a “best practice,” thus designing systems that operationalize and scale integration throughout antenatal and postnatal periods is a major priority.
  4. The Private Sector Can Fill Key Gaps: While family planning programs have traditionally been run by public and large non-profit entities, we are starting to see a shift towards the private sector. As the market grows and demand increases, nearly 40% of women throughout the world obtain contraceptives through private providers. This trend offers an important opportunity for private-public partnerships. Karl Hoffman, Executive Director of PSI, talked about how engaging pharmaceutical companies, learning from supply chain practices, and promoting social marketing strategies can contribute to increased family planning provision. One thing we’ve learned in the international provision of family planning is that women and couples are willing to pay for family planning services to ensure privacy, security and quality. Private providers are generally more agile than public ones, and as a result are ideally positioned to address existing challenges and open new contraceptive user markets.

220 million women around the world still have an unmet need for contraception, which means that we still have a long way to go before we truly reach “Full Choice, Full Access.” But if we start putting some of these lessons into action and design family planning programs from the perspective of the recipient – youth, men, and postpartum women in particular – we’ll be one more step in the right direction.


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