As the world turns its attention to Washington for the International AIDS conference, Mantshi Teffo-Menziwa wants everyone to remember the lessons of “the single most important family planning event in history”, the UK Summit on Family Planning.
Teffo-Menziwa is the director of clinical quality and training at Marie Stopes South Africa, a non-profit sexual and reproductive health organisation. We are so proud that she, a woman, a nurse, a PhD candidate and an ardent advocate of sexual and reproductive healthcare, represented civil society at the London Summit on Family Planning earlier this month. She was the third member of the South African delegation, accompanying Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and Deputy Director-General Dr Yogan Pillay.
The summit, hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), brought together international partners on an issue that, despite being neglected for decades, has a crucial role to play if the Millennium Development Goals for maternal health, eradication of poverty, education and gender equality are to be achieved.
Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, said the idea behind the summit was to put family planning back on the global agenda, allowing women, no matter where they live in the world, to have children if and when they choose.
This truly marks a sea of change for sexual and reproductive health.
Teffo-Menziwa, who has devoted her career and energy to reproductive health, says that, to her, the summit means the field is “finally being recognised as vital preventative healthcare”.
Improving access to family planning is closely linked to South Africa's goals to reduce child and maternal mortality. This includes the recently launched Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA).
Tragically, women die unnecessarily every year from unintended, often unwanted, pregnancies, and children's health is compromised when their mothers' pregnancies are not adequately spaced.
“Children born within two years of an elder sibling are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday than those born two or three years later. The risk of the older child dying increases by 40%, so for older and younger siblings, there is a double jeopardy,” according to Professor John Cleland, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Providing contraception to women who want to space the births of their children and avoid unwanted pregnancies saves lives, which is why our mission at Marie Stopes has always been to empower women to have children by choice, not chance.
With more public and private donors aware of the issue and committed to action, we at Marie Stopes hope greater funding avenues will open for organisations like ours to increase our services in underserved areas and continue community-based education programmes that get the word out about family planning. Currently, we provide long- and short-term contraceptive methods to women and men in 33 centres across the country.
More than 65% of sexually active women currently use some contraceptive method, with most using a modern method. Yet, despite what seems like high rates of contraceptive use, unintended pregnancies remain high. A 2010 study reported that 60% of South African women indicated their pregnancies were unplanned.
On a panel at the London summit, Minister Motsoaledi acknowledged that one failing of South Africa's HIV/AIDS policy was its lack of integration into other healthcare services. He stressed that the same mistake will not be made with family planning. New family healthcare teams, aimed at bringing community health workers and nurses into communities underserved by clinics and hospitals, will be equipped with contraceptive training.
We understand that a central function of the National Health Insurance (NHI) will be the promotion of preventative healthcare, addressing health challenges before they begin. In London, Minister Motsoaledi highlighted a number of initiatives that will raise the profile of family planning as a priority, including increasing the number of school nurses to help address high rates of teenage pregnancy. Overall, he called for a holistic approach, using the resources available in the country.
Civil society is one of those resources. We have a great deal to contribute; we can act as key partners to government on service provision and research around sexual and reproductive health.
The summit brought together scientists, researchers and experts on global reproductive health, but South Africa still needs more homegrown research to better understand family planning needs, stigma, efficiency and access.
Marie Stopes centres operate in all of the identified NHI pilot districts and have experience offering sexual and reproductive healthcare integrated with HIV testing and counselling. We are well positioned to grow our existing partnerships with government in innovative, integrated service delivery.
The London summit has successfully put family planning on the international and national agendas; now it's our job to keep it there.
*Denise Hunt is the country director of Marie Stopes South Africa