Africa: Family Planning Is Not a 'Women's Issue' but a Development Issue As It Impacts the Economy - Rwandan Prime Minister

Kigali, Rwanda — Family planning is one of the most cost-effective ways of promoting people's wellbeing, said Rwanda's Prime Minister Edouard Ngirente at the 5th International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) in Kigali, Rwanda from 12 to 15 November.

"A number of studies have indicated that family planning has a close impact on economic development. This is why it is not only a women's issue but a development issue that affects all of us," he said.

Existing barriers to family planning, the potential consequences and the steps needed to meet the FP2020 goals were central to the ICFP opening discussions.

Rwanda's First Lady Jeanette Kagame said that the acceleration of economic growth and poverty reduction requires access to comprehensive family planning services. "In Rwanda, advancing family planning and reproductive health has been proven to have a direct correlation to overall empowerment of families and, as a result, our commitment to FP2020 has led us to work even harder," she said.

While this progress is encouraging, more needs to be done as significant challenges are still present, she added. "We need to ensure that all relevant stakeholders - from public health, economics, sociology, political science and technology work hand in hand to yield sound results," she said.

Held every two years, the ICFP is the largest scientific conference on reproductive health and family planning of its kind. It provides opportunities for political leaders, scientists, researchers, policymakers, advocates, and young people to disseminate knowledge, celebrate successes and identify the next steps to reach the goal of enabling an additional 120 million women to access contraception by 2020.

Call for more investments in youth-friendly services

UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem commended Rwanda for the country's leadership role in family planning, for reaching the target for MDG5 on maternal mortality and ownership during the elaboration of the Rwanda Maternal, Newborn, Adolescent and Child Health (RMNACH) policy as a first-ever integrated policy. However, challenges still prevail.

Dr. Kanem stressed that the right to family planning is not just a moral imperative but a path to sustainable development. "Words needs to be taken into action. The demographic dividend can only be possible when fertility declines. The demographic dividend framework requires everyone and all sectors to work together," she said.

She also highlighted the need to expand youth-friendly services. "While dealing with closure of the family planning gap, there is need to highlight the importance of family planning services as a critical means to help spur the demographic dividend," she stressed.

The progress made by Rwanda's health sector was a result of political will, said Rwanda's Minister of Health, Dr. Diane Gashumba. However, young people still face barriers in access to family planning, which exposes them to a number of risks.

Despite initiatives in place to address this matter, a number of challenges remain. One of them is teenage pregnancies. "We need to bring our efforts together to tackle this through empowered partnership with all stakeholders. We need to go beyond the barriers that are associated with our cultures and beliefs to mitigate all these issues," she said.

The importance of sustainability in health financing, especially family planning, cannot be over-emphasized, she stressed. "We need to foster progress to achievement of the FP2020 goals and beyond, to achievement of the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs). Rwanda has done so much in the promotion of family planning services and with efforts in place, much is yet to be achieved."

During a meeting between the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Donatille Mukabalisa, Dr. Kanem emphasized the need to empower girls to fulfill their dreams by keeping them in school, avoiding child marriage, and providing them the potential for a bright future.

Champions and mentors of women and adolescents

By increasing access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services, we can empower young people, improve gender relations and eliminate gender-based violence. UNFPA and Imbuto Foundation committed to working together to identify the factors behind adolescent pregnancy for tailored interventions, including scaling up youth-friendly health services.

Interventions by Imbuto Foundation on unintended adolescent pregnancy have enabled adolescent mothers to overcome stigma and discrimination, and reunite with their families.

During a courtesy call on the First Lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, Dr. Kanem appreciated the Foundation's work in nurturing and empowering young people, which has gained international recognition. The meeting cemented the partnership between the Imbuto Foundation and UNFPA.

UNFPA Executive Director visits Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

Dr. Kanem visited Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi, a burial place for more than 250,000 victims of the Rwanda genocide. She described the memorial as having a peaceful atmosphere.

"Peace is the novel purpose of the United Nations, and as the United Nations we must come and visit and reconsider how we can play a role in the future, to ensure that such atrocities never happen again anywhere in the world," she said. "The innocent lives that did not have a chance to blossom remind us that every human being is beautiful and valuable."

Harnessing benefits of the Demographic Dividend for development

There is a strong link between health and development, which is why investing in health is a step towards growth. This is reflected in the fact that economic growth occurs when there is a high number of people in the workforce relative to the number of dependents - a concept known as a demographic dividend.

The focus of the Demographic Dividend Pre-Conference Event was 'Investing for a lifetime of returns - and the generation to come'.

Dr. Usta Kayitesi, Deputy CEO for the Rwanda Governance Board, said that thinking big is what the demographic dividend is all about. "Rwanda, like many parts of Africa and beyond, does not have enough resources but there is a need to understand how to deploy those resources for the right priorities and use them in the interest of the people."

Jotham Musinguzi, Director-General, National Population Council, Uganda, said that fertility in Africa is an issue that needs to be addressed, alongside the conservative views that people still have, if the demographic dividend is to be attained.

"We need to understand that women need to prove themselves and get involved in planning, but they need to be educated and have assurance that their children can survive. Until Africa does that, then these issues we are talking about cannot be addressed."

Dr. Uzziel Ndagijimana, Rwanda's Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, said there is a need to lay the necessary ground work for this demographic shift to yield the dividend, by investing in education, to improve human capital and the economic environment.

"The demographic dividend is a benefit not only for our lifetime but also, for generations to come. But for this to happen, the population age structure must shift, with young adults entering the labour force. We must enable women and couples to have the number of children they desire through access to voluntary family planning services. We must also empower girls through secondary school and beyond, and end the practice of early marriage," he said.

Youth engaging in ICFP as part of the solution

What prevents the use of family planning among young people and what should be done to address this? These questions were the focus of the ICFP Youth Pre-Conference Event on November 10.

Young people's beliefs and decisions about family planning are critical to their sexual and reproductive health and rights, yet too often, young people face obstacles that limit their access to modern contraceptive methods of their choice.

The participants discussed what accessing family planning means to society and how to take the lead in addressing the challenges obstructing young people from accessing the services.

Richard Lusimbo, from Right Here Right Now, a sexual and reproductive health platform for young people in Uganda, said it is important that the youth understand that they are part of the conversation on family planning.

"As young people, we need to be brought to the table. The youth population is the biggest in Africa and we are going to be responsible for the future, which means we need to be able to plan and guide ourselves on how to lead our lives. Being part of the family planning conversation helps us to achieve a lot. Meaningful engagement supports interventions planned," he said.

Hussein Mulere, Vice President of RPHIA East and Southern Africa said that changing the mindsets of young people regarding how best to use innovation to tackle the challenges of family planning is the way to go: "We need to move from conventional ways of doing things into innovation. For example, planning how we can bring reliable information to the youth. So we are here, not just to be part of the conference, but also to be part of the solution."

Rosemary Nasser, a participant from Tanzania, said her dream is to see girls who drop out of school due to pregnancy return to school and complete their education: "In my country, when a girl gets pregnant she is kicked out of school. This happened to my family when my younger sister, who was 17 years old, had to drop out of school after getting pregnant. She never got a chance to go back to school. I feel like I failed her, like the system failed her."

Ms. Nasser wants to start an initiative where she will work with the government to ensure that girls have a chance to attain an education regardless of such unfortunate circumstances.

Olga Namukuza, a youth country coordinator for Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Alliance, Uganda, said teenage pregnancies remain a problem in Uganda, yet restrictive policies do not allow access to contraceptives for young people.

"I believe that young people who are sexually active should be given the option of the different methods that [can] help them plan for their future and help them safeguard their lives, which, in the end, will help them contribute to national development."

A Rwandese participant, Sandrine Uwasingize, applauded the conference for availing such a platform for the youth, and for providing important information on contraceptives for the youth: "Rwanda is now on a good level in regards to family planning and this is because of continuous sensitization from the government."

Sylvester Nyombi, from Reach a hand Uganda, said it is important for youth to have a say regarding when to have children. "We young people have goals and are just carving out a future for [ourselves], and this is where family planning comes in. Contraception is key. We need to be able to use it, embrace it, change people's mindsets and understand [its] relevance."

- Maureen Twahirwa

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