Yesterday, on World Population Day, the United Nations Population Fund officially launched 7 Billion Actions -- a campaign to raise awareness and action around our planet's growing population, which is set to reach 7 billion later this year.
The campaign is a wake-up call to the health, environmental, and social challenges associated with rapid population growth. It is also a wake-up call to the importance of voluntary family planning.
In 2011, more than 200 million women worldwide are still denied access to desired family planning services due to unavailable resources or lack of support from their husbands and communities. As a woman, I believe it is time to make universal access to family planning a global priority. And as a woman, I believe it is essential to welcome men into the conversation.
Why Family Planning?
According to World Health Organization statistics, approximately 1,000 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Over 99 percent of these maternal deaths occur in the developing world, in countries where a mother's death can leave children -- and entire families -- in a perilous scenario.
Many, if not the majority, of these women want smaller families but often do not know how to prevent pregnancies. During my travel as Global Ambassador for the public health organization PSI (Population Services International), I have personally met some of these women.
I remember Therese, a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was so desperate after having given birth to six children that she ingested poisonous herbs to terminate three different pregnancies -- leaving her in agonizing, life threatening pain. Her husband, Victor, watched each time in helpless fear. Like his wife, he had never been given information on family planning methods that could protect his wife and his family.
Their story is all too common and is a reminder that family planning communication must incorporate men into the equation.
Men and Family Planning
Research shows that men have a significant influence over women's reproductive health decisions in the developing world, especially in Africa. Men who receive education on sexual and reproductive health are far more likely to support their partner's decision on family planning.
Despite these facts, many family planning programs continue to follow the traditional woman-focused model, excluding men from research, service provision, and information campaigns.
A program in the Democratic Republic of Congo is addressing this problem, tailoring communication to reach men. Moreover, it uses an innovative and remarkably simple avenue to do so: the cell phone.
Reaching Men in the DRC
In 2011, 70 percent of worldwide cellular phone users live in developing countries. The World Bank has identified mobile phones as one of the most powerful ways to deliver health services and information to people living in remote areas, particularly in largely rural countries like the DRC.
PSI and its local partner, Association de Sante Familiale, saw a unique opportunity within these statistics and, in 2005, launched a family planning hotline in the DRC called Linge Verte.
Open 5 days per week, 8.5 hours per day, Ligne Verte provides free, accurate information on family planning and refers clients to family planning clinics across a wide geographic range.
Most importantly, Ligne Verte provides a safe, confidential zone for Congolese men and women to ask sensitive questions about family planning, as well as other sexual health concerns such as HIV.
To date, 84 percent of Ligne Verte callers have been men. Parallel PSI hotlines in other countries reflect similar statistics. In Benin and Pakistan, men make up 77 percent and 78 percent of callers, respectively, to national PSI family planning hotlines.
These numbers speak for themselves.
Family planning is not a gender specific issue. Men, as much as women, are interested in learning about ways to protect the physical and economic health of their families. They are asking questions and seeking answers.
It is our responsibility to listen and respond to them.
For more information on family planning:
2011 International Conference on Family Planning, Dakar, Senegal, November 29- December 2