More than 200 million women still lack access to modern contraception

Access to contraception is scarce in Malawi, where women have an average of six children. Most say their preferred family size would be four children. (DFID - UK Department for International Development/Flickr)
A new study published Wednesday by the Guttmacher Institute reports that some 214 million women, mostly in the developing world, lack access to modern methods of contraception and other reproductive services routinely available in the West.
The Guttmacher researchers report that the number of women with an unmet need for contraception has generally declined over the past three years — down from 225 million in 2014 — but say that further progress will depend on ongoing commitments and investments in family planning.
“Meeting the sexual and reproductive health needs of women in developing regions is an achievable and affordable goal if world leaders give this global health priority the urgent attention it needs,” says Ann Starrs, President and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute, in a statement accompanying the report’s findings.

Today, some 1.6 billion women of reproductive age live in the developing world and about half of those wish to avoid a pregnancy, according to the study. The greatest need for contraception is in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, where access is limited due to poverty, cultural taboos, poor access to sexual education and other factors.

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Of this subset of women wishing to manage or avoid pregnancy, only about three-quarters (671 million) have access to modern contraceptives — such as condoms, oral contraceptives, implants, vaginal rings and other products or methods that interfere with sexual reproduction.

In the absence of such methods, women typically use traditional methods of avoiding pregnancy, such as the withdrawal method or calendars to help keep track of their cycles. Reproductive rights advocates say such methods are better than nothing, but are both less efficient and an insufficient solution, since they require couples to avoid sex, or use a different method, on specific days of the menstrual cycle.

Further findings from the study indicate that tens of millions of women are not receiving the basic pregnancy and delivery health services that they need. An estimated 50 million women giving birth this year will receive fewer than four antenatal care visits, according to the study, while some 35 million women giving birth will not deliver in a health facility.

As health experts have argued for years, the new research shows that meeting women’s needs for modern contraception and pregnancy-related care is a cost-saving investment. Investing in these services will result in broad social and economic benefits, from increases in women’s and children’s education to increases in women’s earnings and reductions in poverty.

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Another benefit of investing in contraceptive services is that it will slash the cost of maternal healthcare by decreasing the incidence of unintended pregnancies. If all unmet need for modern contraception were satisfied in developing regions, the study found there would be around a three-quarters decline in unintended pregnancies, unplanned births and induced abortions.

“Investing in both contraceptive care and essential maternal and newborn care has the greatest impact on preventing needless deaths of women and newborns,” Jacqueline E. Darroch, senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“Maternal deaths would drop to a quarter of current levels and newborn deaths would drop to less than one-fifth of current levels with an investment of just US $8.39 per person per year.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com