What do Men have to do with Women’s Reproductive Rights?

On his third day in office, President Trump signed the new and worse global gag rule, a restriction on international organizations that receive U.S. global health assistance that blocks them from using their own, non-U.S. funds to provide or refer women to abortion services. And lest we forget: he signed that presidential memorandum with seven men and zero women standing behind him.

The disturbing image of a group of men literally blocking women’s access to abortion conveys the narrative of centuries of men controlling women’s bodies and lives. So, to the question, what do men have to do with women’s reproductive rights, the obvious answer in these political times seems to be: stay out. It might be that we want men to have little or nothing to do with women’s sexual and reproductive health rights.

But would women be better off? Excluding all men from discussions around sexual and reproductive rights is a disservice to women. It keeps the burden for contraception on women. It halts efforts that encourage men to support the reproductive choices of their female partners, and perpetuates a culture in which no man is perceived to be, or engaged to be, an ally in ensuring reproductive rights of all people.

Clearly, men matter in this discussion. There is the obvious point that, in the context of heterosexual relationships, men are half of the human reproductive process. However, they represent only about one-quarter of total contraceptive use, including withdrawal, vasectomy, and male condoms. That proportion has remained virtually unchanged since the 1980s, despite the fact that vasectomy is cheaper and safer than female sterilization. And, while condoms may not be the long-term contraceptive solution for many couples, they have the added protection of STI and HIV prevention.

There are other male contraceptive methods in various stages of development. The most recent trial of a male hormonal contraceptive method was halted in 2016 due to negative side effects. Some women’s health advocates pointed out that the decision represented a double standard, given that trials for women’s hormonal contraceptives have continued despite multiple side effects experienced by women.

Here’s the other reason we need men on board: millions of women report not using contraceptives because of their husbands. In 2012, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the Gates Foundation and the UK government, among others, created Family Planning 2020 (FP2020), with the goal of reaching 120 million of the world’s poorest women with contraception. At their meeting in London in July, coordinators of the Family Planning 2020 partnership acknowledged they had only achieved about a quarter of their target and that a key obstacle was men’s attitudes toward women’s usage of family planning. Currently, the FP2020 initiative has no target for increasing men’s use of contraceptives. Given the realities of sex and reproduction, we may never achieve a truly equal sharing of the contraceptive burden – but we can do better.

At the very least, donors, governments, and public health agencies need to talk to men about supporting women’s reproductive health. Studies from many of the world’s poorest countries show that many men want more children than their female partners, while in other countries, many men support their wives’ decisions to have fewer children. We cannot rest until that becomes all men.

What about access to safe and legal abortion? Shouldn’t abortion stay in the realm of exclusively women’s decision-making? The answer is a definitive yes. Her body, her decision. In practice, though, many women confide in male partners on this issue. Household surveys coordinated by Promundo in several countries found that between 40% and 90% of women said that they involved a male partner in a decision to have an abortion. We can’t assume this is always a positive involvement on the part of male partners. But we can work to make men’s involvement respectful and supportive. Women and men, boys and girls, of all ages should be educated about contraception and abortion, and why both are critical components of comprehensive health services and rights. In addition, surveys in the U.S. show that men are as likely as women to support keeping abortion legal. Maybe it’s time for those men to speak up.

We need men around the world, from the heads of foreign assistance, to health policymakers, to male partners and husbands to join women and show in their voting, their voices, and their decisions that they stand up every day for women’s reproductive rights. We need fathers and mothers around the world to talk to their children, from early on, in open and feminist ways, about sex, sexuality, gender identity and expression, choice, rights, and contraception. We need men and women to vote for school board members who support comprehensive sexuality education, and speak out against violence against women.

Until every woman in the world has access to modern contraceptives, safe abortion, and bodily autonomy, we all must talk about family planning. At home, in the classroom, and in the halls of power.

Gary Barker is President and CEO of Promundo-US, an NGO that works globally to engage men and boys in gender equality.

Serra Sippel is President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), a U.S.-based NGO that advocates for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls globally.

The featured photo for this post was taken as a part of a series for the MenCare+ program in Rwanda, run by RWAMREC, focused in part on promoting discussions on family planning and women’s reproductive rights.

Talking Family Planning with Beth Schlachter

On July 11 2017, policymakers, donors, and advocates from around the world gathered at the Family Planning Summit in London to discuss efforts to reach the Family Planning 2020 goals – ensuring greater numbers of women and girls are able to plan their futures by enabling 120 million more women to use contraception by 2020.

We caught up with Executive Director Beth Schlachter after the Summit to talk about expanding access to contraception and giving girls and women the ability to control their own lives.

Wherever you live, and whether or not you’re happy with the information, services and support you’re currently able to access, there are ways that each of us can take action improve the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls in our own communities and elsewhere in the world. Beth explains:

Feeling inspired?

Visit the Family Planning Summit website to learn more and to access resources

Follow @FP2020Global on Twitter

Engage with Family Planning 2020 on Facebook

Join the conversation using #HerFuture

Behind the Silence of Stillbirth

A stillbirth is the death of a baby within a pregnant body after twenty weeks of pregnancy. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2.6 million stillbirths occurred in 2015. Those living in the Global South are the most at risk, but in countries around the world the numbers remain too high – 15 babies each day are stillborn or die within a month of birth in the UK, with black and Asian babies being the most at risk, and in 46% of these cases the causes are unknown.

This being said, this phenomenon is still very rarely talked about, and so the grief and suffering of many victims goes unnoticed. I think it’s important to raise awareness, to encourage others not to idealise pregnancy, to highlight the importance of protecting one’s body and mind and to support each other in these painful but ‘part-of-life’ moments.

I am a French Afro-descendant woman living in Berlin where I have been entitled to care and support from the moment I discovered I was pregnant to the funeral of my baby girl. The pro-natalist policies in Germany gave me the choice to keep my child and to plan accordingly. I have had monthly ultrasound scans, extra vitamins, and an incredible community of mothers and expecting mothers to answer my many questions and provide me with mental support. However, even in the best conditions, my baby died inside my womb for unknown reasons except the fact that life is not – as pregnancy is not – a straight forward process.

I have been amazed to see that sharing my personal story has enabled other women to openly talk about their experiences. However, I have also faced insensitive comments and people asking me or other women without a child for the reason of their child’s death. I often wondering about the intention behind these kinds of comments, although I am sure they cannot be intended to help the suffering mothers feel more at peace.

Grieving mothers have to navigate between hormonal changes, body (re)transformation and loss of identity. Victims are often unable to bear the extra pain that comes from others’ inability to deal with the loss, including family and friends. It is important to find a good balance between support and space to let the victim heal in her very personal way from the loss of a part of herself.

Women react in different ways to stillbirth but many feel they have violently lost a part of themselves in the process. Being pregnant can be a traumatic experience – talking from my personal experience, throwing up and being exhausted is a difficult adventure. Worse than the extreme body transformation of pregnancy, though, is the need to deliver a breathless baby’s body. It took me weeks to understand that my daughter was not within me anymore. A grieving mother isn’t just a woman after losing her baby. She is a broken women, and she needs time to heal.

My relatives have been extremely affected by the loss of this child and have been incredibly supportive. They have included YunNan, my first child, in our family. She is daughter, a niece, a granddaughter, and a great-granddaughter, and she alwasy will be.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in losing a child. It is essential to tell women who have experienced stillbirth that they are victims, to tell our blinded society that stillbirth occurs more than we think, and to tell those who want to help that there ways for them bring about positive change for grieving parents.

The number of stillbirths declined by only 19% between 2000 and 2015. Ignoring stillbirth is an issue that leads to shocked, grieving parents and incomprehension among wider society, and so society at large must change. Stillbirth is part of a bigger picture framed by sexism, racism and classism. It is our duty to all, women and men included, to care for each other, to collaborate and to strive together to break the silence that surrounds stillbirth. 

The featured image of this post was drawn by my brother in honour and memory of YunNan, my stillbirth baby girl.

Family Planning Summit 2017: Transforming #HerFuture

On Tuesday 11 July, countries, policymakers, donors, advocates, and representatives of civil society organizations will gather at the Family Planning Summit 2017 in London to catalyze efforts that ensure more women and girls around the world are able to plan when and how often they get pregnant.

This month marks the five-year anniversary of the landmark London Summit on Family Planning in 2012, where global and country leaders committed to enable 120 million more women and girls to use contraceptives by 2020. Thanks to incredible leadership from governments, advocates, partners in civil society and the private sector today more women and girls than ever are using modern contraceptives.

The Family Planning Summit is an opportunity to harness a groundswell of energy among family planning partners in London and around the world.

Beth Schlachter, Executive Director of Family Planning 2020, describes the significance of tomorrow’s Summit:

“The world has shifted dramatically since the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning. We return five years later to an entirely different landscape. Much has changed, but what matters is what has not. Now, more than ever, governments and partners in civil society and the private sector are committed to building sharper, more effective and targeted family planning programs for women and girls around the world.

Family planning is an investment with exponential returns for countries and communities everywhere. Too many of the women, men and young people who will shape our future grapple with displacement or searing poverty with few – or no – options for planning when and whether they will have children.

We are committed to making contraceptives available to those who want and need them. We will gather in London on 11 July to accelerate the progress we have already made, to reaffirm our commitments and to build on what we’ve learned to create a better, brighter future together.”

Family Planning 2020_Girls Globe_Summit 2017
Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

To follow, engage & join the conversation:

Tune in to the Family Planning Summit website or Youtube to watch the livestream 

Follow @FP2020Global and #HerFuture

Engage with Family Planning 2020 on Facebook