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Family planning

Access to safe, voluntary family planning is a human right. Family planning is central to gender equality and women’s empowerment, by giving women the ability to decide the number and spacing of children; and it is a key factor in reducing poverty. Yet some 225 million women worldwide who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods, for reasons ranging from lack of access to information or services to lack of support from their partners or communities. Most of these women with an unmet need for contraceptives live in 69 of the poorest countries on earth.

UNFPA works to support family planning by: ensuring a steady, reliable supply of quality contraceptives; strengthening national health systems; advocating for policies supportive of family planning; and gathering data to support this work. UNFPA also provides global leadership in increasing access to family planning, by convening partners – including governments – to develop evidence and policies, and by offering programmatic, technical and financial assistance to developing countries.

Family planning saves lives

Contraceptives prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the number of abortions, and lower the incidence of death and disability related to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. If all women with an unmet need for contraceptives were able to use modern methods, an additional 24 million abortions (14 million of which would be unsafe), 6 million miscarriages, 70,000 maternal deaths and 500,000 infant deaths would be prevented.

Women’s and adolescents’ right to contraceptive information and services is grounded in basic human rights. The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) recognized “the right of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice.” This agreement lays the foundation for much of UNFPA’s work.

Additionally, male and female condoms, when used correctly and consistently, provide dual protection against both unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.

Increasing access to modern contraception among adolescent girls is a crucial starting point for improving their long-term health. It is also essential for improving maternal and newborn health. In low- and middle- income countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are leading killers of adolescent girls (ages 15-19). Their babies also face a higher risk of dying than the babies of older women. Yet adolescents face enormous barriers to accessing reproductive health information and services.

UNFPA works to improve access to reproductive health services, including for marginalized young people. In 2013 for example, seven UNFPA-supported youth centres in Haiti were accessed by more than 80,000 young people, and the number of UNFPA-supported youth-friendly health facilities in Burundi increased from four to 18, serving 631,266 people.

Family planning empowers women

Access to contraceptive information is central to achieving gender equality. When women and couples are empowered to plan whether and when to have children, women are better enabled to complete their education; women’s autonomy within their households is increased; and their earning power is improved. This strengthens their economic security and well-being and that of their families.

Cumulatively, these benefits contribute to poverty reduction and development.

Family planning brings economic benefits

There are clear economic benefits to investing in family planning. For every dollar invested in contraception, the cost of pregnancy-related care is reduced by $1.47

The lifetime opportunity cost related to adolescent pregnancy – a measure of the annual income a young mother misses out on over her lifetime – ranges from 1 per cent of annual gross domestic product in a large country such as China to 30 per cent of annual GDP in a small economy such as Uganda. If adolescent girls in Brazil and India were able to wait until their early twenties to have children, the increased economic productivity would equal more than $3.5 billion and $7.7 billion, respectively.

Family planning can also help countries realize a ‘demographic dividend’, a boost in economic productivity that occurs when there are growing numbers of people in the workforce and falling numbers of dependents.

   In 2014, UNFPA delivered 39.2 million couple years of protection, the estimated contraceptive protection from an unwanted pregnancy provided during a one-year period, through its total procurement  of contraceptives.
   UNFPA procured more than 780 million male and female condoms. Other contraceptive methods procured include implants, intrauterine devices, injectable and oral contraceptives(the ‘pill’) , and emergency contraception.
   The contraceptives provided in 2014 had potential to avert an estimated:
   -29,000 maternal deaths,
   -10.7 million unintended pregnancies,
   -3.3 million unsafe abortions
   -174,000 child deaths
   UNFPA never promotes abortion as a method of family planning.

The regions with the greatest needs for modern contraception – sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – would see the greatest health and welfare gains from meeting unmet need.

Overcoming barriers to family planning

Common reasons why women do not use contraceptives include logistical problems, such as difficulty travelling to health facilities or supplies running out at health clinics. Reasons also include social barriers, such as opposition by partners, families or communities. Lack of knowledge also plays a role, with many women not understanding that they are able to becoming pregnant, not knowing what contraceptive methods are available, or having incorrect perceptions about the health risks of modern methods.

There are a number of challenges to improving access to family planning information and services. Efforts to increase access must be sensitive to cultural and national contexts, and must consider economic, geographic and age disparities within countries.

Poorer women and those in rural areas often have less access to family planning services. Certain groups – including adolescents, unmarried people, the urban poor, rural populations, sex workers and people living with HIV – also face a variety of barriers to family planning. This can lead to higher rates of unintended pregnancy, increased risk of HIV and other STIs, limited choice of contraceptive methods, and higher levels of unmet need for family planning. Particular attention must be paid to promoting their reproductive rights, access to family planning, and other sexual and reproductive health services.

UNFPA’s work

UNFPA works at every level to improve access to family planning and empower individual choices , partnering with governments, NGOs, community-service organizations, faith-based organizations, youth groups and the private sector. With its partners, UNFPA helps to strengthen community-based and youth-friendly reproductive health services, and to provide these services during humanitarian crises.

And through its the UNFPA Supplies programme, UNFPA works with partners and governments to ensure access to a reliable supply of contraceptives, condoms, and medicines and equipment for family planning, STI prevention and maternal health services. UNFPA also works to integrate family planning services into primary health care, so that women and girls are able to access information and contraceptives no matter what health facility they visit. 

Updated 20 April 2015.