At Global Conference, Family Planning is Front and Center

This week at the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, discussions about family planning will take center stage.

Women Deliver

This week, thousands of advocates, government leaders, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, and healthcare professionals from around the world are in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the third global Women Deliver conference, which focuses on the health and empowerment of women and girls.

One of the main themes of this year’s conference is reducing the unmet need for contraception. Family planning has long been an integral component of maternal and child health – in fact, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include increasing access to, and use of, contraceptives as part of MDG5 focused on improving maternal health by 2015. Another important component to improving maternal and child health is increasing access to family planning and fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Family planning is a key component of the Global Plan towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children by 2015 and keeping their mothers alive (the “Global Plan”) , which seeks to reduce new pediatric HIV infections by 90 percent and AIDS-related maternal deaths by 50 percent. Family planning services for HIV-positive women center on the idea that all women – regardless of their HIV status – have the right to bear children and to decide when to become pregnant. Through family planning services, counselors provide individuals and couples living with HIV with information on contraceptives that meet their reproductive needs, such as pills or injections, and link them to other health services.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s riskiest region in which to have a child, planning pregnancies saves lives. Due to poor access to antenatal care and a lack of skilled birth attendants, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the world, and unplanned pregnancies make it that much more difficult for women to access care. In addition to pregnancy complications, HIV is a major contributor to maternal deaths in sub-Saharan Africa – a recent study suggests that nearly one in four deaths in pregnant or postpartum women can be attributed to HIV. Because a woman who is HIV-positive often needs more time than an HIV-negative woman to recover from a pregnancy and delivery, an unintended pregnancy could seriously jeopardize her health.

Family planning is also a critical tool in preventing new HIV infections in children. Currently only 57 percent of HIV-positive women worldwide receive services to prevent the transmission of HIV to their children. A study in Uganda showed that unplanned pregnancy among HIV-positive women accounted for 24.5 percent of pediatric HIV infections and 19.8 percent of pediatric AIDS-related deaths. Empowering women to plan their pregnancies will have a major role in reducing new infections in children, as well as overall maternal and child mortality.

Ideally, family planning services should be integrated within the HIV and maternal and child health frameworks, which would reduce stigma and discrimination and enable a woman to receive timely antenatal care, HIV care and treatment, postnatal care, and family planning services at one health facility, usually from the same healthcare worker. Integration will also help educate healthcare workers, some of whom discourage women living with HIV from having children. Expanding access to family planning services is one of the best ways to reduce maternal and child deaths and is integral to achieving the goals set in the “Global Plan.” It also recognizes and upholds the sexual and reproductive rights of women living with and affected by HIV.

Samantha Ritter is Public Policy Associate for the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.