Alice Allan: Family Planning – It’s Everyone’s Business

By Alice Allan, Head of Policy and Advocacy (Jobshare), CARE International UK.


To achieve the ambitious and urgent goal of reaching 120 million women with family planning will take significant political and financial will by governments – which is why the forthcoming Family Planning Summit is so welcome. But what about the role of business? How do we convince them that family planning is something that directly affects their consumers and producers and how do we harness the power of their supply chains to reach more women?

Deciding if and when to have children and having access to quality maternal healthcare are central to women’s ability to live, learn and earn. Companies engaged in the ready-made garment sector have made the link – they know that unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions mean more absences, lower productivity and higher turnover.

CARE has worked for many years to develop training programmes with many leading brands – most recently with the CHAT! programme in Cambodia. This aims to empower women to take control of their lives and prevent unplanned pregnancies, using an award-winning combination of social media, TV drama and training. It is currently being used across 30 factories, including those used by M&S and Levi’s, and reaching 15,000 women. It has already doubled the use of contraception.

When it comes to the formal economy, as noted in an Oxfam Policy and Practice blog, recent studies point to the positive influence of lower fertility in women’s economic participation; globally, female labour force participation decreases with each additional child by about 10% to 15% points among women aged 25 to 39. Studies also find that women’s empowerment in formal wage employment is tied to the presence (or lack of) policies that support women including child care and access to contraceptives.

But what about rural populations? Zambia for example, has one of the youngest, most rural populations in the world and according to 2013/14 demographic health figures, only 49% of married women in Zambia age 15 to 49 are currently using any family planning method. The figure drops to 45% for modern methods (12% are using the pill).

A CARE-owned social enterprise in Zambia might hold some of the answers. Live Well aims to improve health outcomes whilst increasing income by establishing a network of Community Health Entrepreneurs to promote healthcare awareness and sell a range of health products in poor rural and peri-urban communities. Goods range from nutritional products, painkillers and other medicines, through to household goods like solar lamps. If an entrepreneur encounters a household that has health needs beyond what is available in their basket, they refer the customer to the closest health clinic.

Family planning has been part of the mix from the start with condoms being included. As the enterprise has developed a demand emerged for the contraceptive pill. This wasn’t possible to provide at first – as with many countries, the rules around who can and can’t administer contraception and low numbers of trained health workers created a bottleneck. But, by working with the Zambian government (a strong supporter of FP2020 with an ambitious 8-year plan to increase uptake) the project secured support from the relevant ministries to enable trained Live Well staff to provide the pill. The Safeplan contraceptive pill is now available as of July 1st.

Live Well currently receives funding support from GSK and Barclays along with advisory support from health-focused NGO, Living Goods. The hope is that one day, Live Well can scale up and become self-sustaining.

This is exactly the sort of creative leadership and innovation needed to ensure no one is left behind without access to family planning. Currently three large pharmaceutical companies have made commitments to improve family planning through the FP2020 process. Many more businesses need to step up and recognise the benefits of ensuring women have more choice and control over their bodies.

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