• Lamine Thiam

Spotlight on: empowering women through family planning

Sunday, 8 Mar 2020
To mark International Women’s Day 2020, we will publish a spotlight series with Options staff working on the frontlines in the fight for gender equality. Our second piece features insights from Options' Regional Sustainability Lead Lamine Thiam on the role of family planning in women's empowerment.

Could you tell us briefly about the work you do: why did you choose to advocate for family planning (FP) and why is it important for women's empowerment, especially in sub-Saharan Africa?

As Options' Regional Sustainability Lead, covering western and central Africa, my job is to support countries to implement a national ownership approach for family planning and  monitor their government commitments, to increase public funding of family planning, and to help national coalitions of civil society organisations to strengthen their existing national accountability mechanisms so they are better placed to advocate for family planning.

Why did I decide to do this work, particularly as a man? Because in Africa, we should have zero cases of sexual and gender based violence, including female genital mutilation, and of early or forced marriage. But in my 25 years of working in public health, I have witnessed gender inequality in many African countries. It is not acceptable that, in 2020, women are dying because of unsafe abortion practices, or because they don’t have access to antenatal or postnatal care. I have seen the economic barriers women face to accessing timely maternal and sexual and reproductive health services in many countries. It is time for family planning experts and policymakers to ensure that all women can access decentralized maternal health and family planning services, adequate sexual and reproductive health knowledge, formal education and income generating activities so they don't need to depend on men. They should also have right and freedom to choose their preferred family planning methods and have means to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies as well as all forms of gender based violence and harmful practices.

My vision is that there is zero unmet for family planning and information in Africa, and that all women have access to universal healthcare and quality, affordable care.

Moreover, all countries should adopt demographic dividend policies - meaning that they should see family planning a as multisectoral issue contributing to the social and economic development of African countries. National decision and policy-makers need to understand the importance of mainstreaming family planning in all  government sectors, including ministries of education, gender and social welfare, and its ability to accelerate progress towards the achievement of country Sustainable Development Goals.

How do you see the role of men in facilitating access to family planning?

In Africa, men should play a key role in family planning. Their involvement is crucial because in some particularly religious or traditional communities, they are in autocratic positions towards their wives and don't allow them to use any family planning methods without their permission.

But I've had the chance to attend regional meetings over the past years where religious leaders were invited to participate on the role of, for example, Islam in family planning. In these meetings I learned that there are many chapters in the Quran that say that a woman should be able to adopt family planning methods to space birth. So involving and informing men is absolutely crucial. 

On International Women’s Day 2020, what are some of achievements in your professional and personal life that you are most proud of? 

My wife and I have four children and one day she mentioned to me that she didn't want to have any more children. I remember that she asked me what I thought about her decision. She wanted to focus on her career and back to university to get a Master's degree and PhD. I listened to her because I thought that she should have the power to pursue an education and to get a good job, and follow her life plan. I respected her decision and was proud of her achievements: she finished university, and found a better job. But in many countries and traditional communities women have no right to say that they don't want to have any more children and have to obey their husbands.

I am also proud of some of the projects I was part of in my career that contributed to changing people's minds about family planning. For example, I was working in one county in Senegal where the family planning was a taboo. As a result, the contraceptive prevalence rate was low and and men didn't allow their women to go to FP clinics.

At the time, I was working with World Vision and carried out a qualitative research project to try to find out what the different factors were that blocked people's access to family planning methods. Based on these findings, I remember that I developed a mass communications campaign with my team that aimed to convince men (including religious leaders) and women about the benefits of family planning on rural radio channels. After a period of five years, the contraceptive prevalence rate increased significantly from 5% to 10% in a five to six year period, which was a great achievement, because of the support of religious leaders and engagement of men in that community. 

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