When delegates to the London Summit on Family Planning gather Wednesday, they will be meeting to renew efforts to support the rights of women and girls to contraceptive information, services, and supplies. I’m gratified to see this emphasis on rights as the very basis for the summit.
I have spent much of my career working in public health supply chain management – what we all used to call “logistics.” When JSI first started to work in the mid-80s to improve the supply chain for contraceptives throughout the developing world, we were pretty much alone. We worked with colleagues from CDC and UNFPA, but it was not the high profile topic it is now. While others were focused on increasing knowledge of and demand for family planning services, the challenge we saw then was to establish even rudimentary distribution systems to deliver supplies reliably to poor women.
That has changed in recent years. Just over the past five years, the need for an efficiently functioning supply chain has gained wide recognition, and resources have moved in that direction. There are still issues in the supply chain, to be sure, but lack of supplies is not the only reason that millions of women still lack access to family planning services.
There are still places in the world where a woman’s choice to use those contraceptives is not a given. There are social and cultural barriers to the acceptability of family planning, as well as a lack of comprehensive sexuality education. I believe that the focus now needs to shift back to a balanced approach to building demand while improving supply.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the British government have convened this summit with the goal of making contraceptives available to an additional 120 million women in the poorest countries. I am hopeful that this summit of world leaders will spark the policy changes needed to improve girls’ education, strengthen women’s rights, open men’s minds, and turn their hearts to honor all women through this most fundamental public health intervention. Those are the things that will build demand for family planning. We need to meet a woman where she is, acknowledge the social context in which she lives, and address the variety of things that may restrict her access. And make sure the contraceptives she needs are there when she needs them!
UPDATE: My colleague at JSI, Edward Wilson, was quoted this week in a Financial Times article about the emerging logistical barriers to the supply of contraceptives in the developing world caused by non-standardized regulations on manufacturing and importation. Read the article,“Delivery: Bottlenecks that block the chain of supply.”