Family planning is a core component of achieving gender equality and plays an important role in reducing poverty — but 232 million women around the world still lack access to contraceptive methods, according to the United Nations.
“It is very important to assert and reassert that the ability to plan and prevent pregnancy is vital,” Dr. Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), told Global Citizen.
According to the UN agency, “few things have a greater impact on the life of a woman than the number and spacing of her children.”
What Is UNFPA Supplies?
UNFPA Supplies, established in 2007, is a program under the United Nations Population Fund dedicated to expanding access to family planning commodities.
It supports countries with the greatest needs by helping them strengthen their supply chains, thereby increasing women’s and adolescent girls’ ability to access contraceptives and maternal health medicines.
UNFPA Supplies also integrates reproductive health supplies into national policies, strengthens governments’ capacity to manage supply chains and reproductive health services, and secures reproductive health supplies with an aim to increase the quality and reduce the prices of these commodities.
Kanem explained why this is essential.
“Young people have not had the power to control their own destiny — and part of that is because of reproductive health,” she said. “Family planning is a crucial aspect that gives women and girls the power to control their economic future.”
The program’s work has not been without criticism. At the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) held in Nairobi, Kenya this past November, protesters demonstrated against the event and circulated online petitions, and some religious leaders denounced the summit altogether.
Kanem stressed the importance of conversations amidst the controversy.
“From my perspective we need to pull back the curtain and talk about anything that is considered taboo. FGM [female genital mutilation] was not even spoken about a few years back ... same with menstrual health and period poverty — which punishes someone for something that is not in their control,” Kanem said.
How Does It Work?
UNFPA Supplies is committed to operating in some of the poorest countries with the highest needs of contraception supplies. Currently, they support 46 countries including Mali, Haiti, El Salvador, Iraq, and Yemen.
“Many of these countries are in humanitarian situations where [health] systems get disrupted, so our work is essential,” Dr. Gifty Addico, chief of commodity security branch in UNFPA’s technical division, told Global Citizen.
She says women’s issues, such as access to contraception, underpin a large part of the UN’s development agenda.
UNFPA Supplies works with governments to build their capacity to better manage systems so that women and adolescent girls can access a range of contraception choices, regardless of where they are located.
“Ultimately the responsibility is with government,” Addico said.
She explained that the fund has a sustainability strategy that “graduates countries” when they effectively manage contraception-related supply chains.
For example, UNFPA Supplies worked with the Nicaraguan government to build their capacity to increase access to family planning commodities until they deemed the government was sufficiently providing this service to its residents.
“It’s important we are there as development partners because women and girls can’t wait,” Addico said. “A women’s desire to decide when or whether she has a child must be fulfilled regardless of the political context.”
What Impact Has It Made?
UNFPA estimates that 1.3 million lives may have been saved since 2007 through the use of family planning methods provided by the program.
UNFPA Supplies helped governments procure $89 million worth of contraceptives and medicines for maternal health in 2018 alone. This had the potential to prevent an estimated 10 million unintended pregnancies, which in turn averted: 25,000 maternal deaths, over 150,000 child deaths, and 3.2 million unsafe abortions, according to the program.
By averting these pregnancies, UNFPA Supplies estimates it saved families and health systems $620 million in health care costs.
UNFPA Supplies also supports areas affected by humanitarian crises. In 2018, emergency reproductive health kits were distributed in 22 countries in crisis, providing contraceptives for 1.7 million women and adolescent girls.
What’s Next for UNFPA Supplies?
At ICPD25, political leaders and corporations pledged billions of dollars to support the UN agency’s work. However, the agency said they need an additional $222 billion to meet its 2030 goals of eliminating maternal deaths, ending gender-based violence and harmful practices, and achieving universal access for family planning.
UNFPA Supplies needs $192 million to continue its work in 2020.
“I’m not even sure it’s a cost. It’s an investment with 10 times [the] returns … that’s something I’d like to invest in,” Kanem said about the economic payoff from investing in women’s health.