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How to REALLY help women in the developing world

The London Summit on Family Planning, co-hosted by the Department for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is taking place today.  It hopes to raise funds from governments, organisations and private donors to supply contraception to women and girls in the developing world.  Yet there is another way to improve women’s health and give them more choice over when to have children; natural family planning.  Not only is it entirely safe and natural, it does not force women in the developing world to rely on uncertain Western handouts.

Natural family planning helps women to understand and monitor their fertility cycle, so that they can avoid pregnancy or increase the chances of their falling pregnant.  There is a common assumption that natural family planning is a last resort, less effective than artificial methods of contraception.  In fact, the Family Planning Association confirms it is up to 99% effective when women have been trained in its use. 

Asel Ibraeva, a Kyrgyzstani woman, heard about natural family planning on a visit to Britain.  Unsurprisingly, she was anxious to spread the word in her home country.     Kyrgyzstan is the sort of place which the organisers of the summit aspire to supply with contraception.  It is overwhelmingly poor and rural, with a third of the population living below the poverty line and two-thirds living in rural areas.  As a result, many women have little access to contraception. 

A teacher of natural family planning from Britain agreed to give a training course to local people the following year, to enable them to train others.  Asel and her husband set up an organisation, Family Harmony, to continue training more and more local people in natural family planning.  So far, Family Harmony has taught 490 doctors, nurses and medical students, 67 couples and almost 1,000 high school students about natural family planning. 

Natural family planning goes further to help women than simply handing out contraception could ever do.   It teaches women not only how to avoid pregnancy, but how to become pregnant.  To date, twenty women who had been unable to conceive have given birth to healthy babies simply as a result of greater knowledge of their own fertility cycles.  The picture below shows three women holding babies conceived as a result of natural family planning after years of trying.  Locally, they call these babies the ‘English method babies’.  Teachers of natural family planning also give women information about how to stay healthy during pregnancy and birth, to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality.

This remarkable success does not rely on continuing Western expertise.  After the first training session, Family Harmony has primarily used local doctors and nurses as teachers.  Nor does it rely on Western aid.  Unlike artificial contraception, natural family planning costs the woman nothing to practise.  Supplies will not run out when a Western government chooses to cut its aid budget, or when winter makes access to rural areas difficult.  Women, not pharmaceutical companies or Western governments, have control of their own fertility.

This may be only one project, but it shows the direction we should be travelling in.  There is no need for the London Summit to pledge millions of pounds to send contraception to the developing world.  What is needed is initial support for natural family planning projects that are self-sustaining, locally run and allow women to understand and control their own fertility safely, naturally, and for free.  

If you would like to help Family Harmony with their vital work in Kyrgyzstan, contact Mark Bhagwandin at markbhagwandin@lifecharity.org.uk.