“I told them, ‘Any man could be the father of the next president, if he carefully planned his family,’” said Bridget Anyafulu, executive director of the International Centre for Women Empowerment and Child Development.
Bridget is a member of Family Planning 2020’s rights and empowerment working group and she was sharing a pivotal moment in her work as a maternal and reproductive health advocate.
It was an experience that demonstrated to her two powerful truths that have underpinned her work since: first, that women have the right to take charge of their own fertility and will try and find ways to do so; and secondly, that community education to bring everyone on board with this first truth – even if it takes years – enables the most sustainable and meaningful change possible.
Bridget’s work as an advocate had taken her to cities and towns across Nigeria, but on this particular day she arrived at an especially remote and impoverished village in the Delta district.
Electricity was scarce and water was a four-kilometre walk for the women of the village – most of whom had around eight children.
Despite prevailing patriarchy, which dictated that men controlled their wives’ fertility and often disallowed the use of contraception, Bridget learnt that the women of the village had developed a novel strategy to reclaim both choice and access: they hid packs of birth control pills in a designated tree along the route they took each evening to fetch water.
This reproductive health innovation was functioning rather successfully until a well-meaning development project – which laid pipes that brought the village running water – changed everything.
No more walks to fetch water for the women meant no more privacy or opportunity to access family planning.
Ironically, one positive water development for the village also meant a not-so-positive health development for women in the village and served as one more reminder of how intimately connected aspects of our lives are.
But the desire to exercise autonomy over one’s own body is powerful. And soon the water pipes had been mysteriously vandalized, and women once again were fetching water from the river.
It was at this point that Bridget arrived and quickly understood what was happening. She saw the need for family planning from the women, and the lack of acceptance from the men. She also saw poverty, poor health, and a great opportunity – not for more surreptitious family planning schemes (important as the “pill tree” had been) – but to face this issue head-on.
Family planning is a universal human right. The evidence is clear, not only do women deserve to decide freely and for themselves, whether and when they want to have children, but the positive ripple effect is widespread when this happens.
Women and children are healthier, family resources go further, and the possibilities for education, employment and prosperity open up wider. In this tiny village where men were adamantly against family planning, Bridget spent the next several years reaching out to community leaders and men on the broader health and development benefits of family planning and slowly changed their mindsets.
In recent years, family planning usage, acceptability and awareness have dramatically increased. Maternal deaths have dropped as a result. As part of one of the four Family Planning 2020 working groups that provide technical support, Bridget is connected with other change agents pursuing progress in their communities.
Family Planning 2020 provides the critical platform and framework from which to meet these ambitious, yet achievable family planning access goals.
Next week, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Family Planning 2020 will gather along with thousands of family planning advocates, providers and policymakers at the third bi-annual International Conference on Family Planning.
We will build on this momentum to share news of real and positive change occurring worldwide. Progress towards our collective goals is being made, strategies for improving access to family planning are working, and more women and girls are able to access the contraceptive information, services and supplies they want.
The conference in Addis will be a time for celebrating achievements as much as it will be a time for candid discussions on challenges, transparency and accountability.
The author is the director, Family Planning 2020.