In Kenya, the “Future Fab” teen lifestyle brand is taking off. Around the world, young people are rallying around the term “future planning.” And in West Africa, youth ambassadors are mobilizing their peers to encourage their governments to invest in contraceptive security.
They’re diverse projects in different contexts addressing unique communities’ needs, but they’re all focused on making contraceptive use more accessible for youth. And in each, the term “family planning” has been purposefully set aside.
Today, the two words that have so long acted as the umbrella term for women’s ability to choose the spacing and timing of their births are no longer serving young people who aren’t managing their reproductive health in the context of marriage. Adolescents view their need for access to contraception not just as a way to decide when to become pregnant, but as a path for them to plan their education, their relationships, their finances and their futures as a whole.
Many people have “really tried very hard to undo this conundrum of words,” Jill Sheffield, president emeritus of Women Deliver, told Devex after the 2016 Women Deliver Conference. “I think that one of the challenges we need to issue to young people is to help the world come up with a new label for the concept of avoiding unintended pregnancy.”
But different, yet still succinct, sets of words often “get more medical,” Sheffield said.
There is an ongoing dialogue in the development community about how to refer to these issues — some want to revert back to simply using “contraception” rather than family planning, but others question whether that term communicates everything it should.
Though a new term has yet to be coined, the development community should follow the lead of program design, and adopt a more human-centered approach, driven by the needs of local communities. In fact youth are already taking on the issue — and Sheffield’s challenge — as they focus not just on when and how they’ll have children, but on what their futures look like.
What Laura Hoemeke remembers most from her work in family planning education in Ethiopia several years ago is a conversation with one young girl.
“When she said ‘I’m not planning a family, I’m planning to go to university,’ it really struck me,” said Hoemeke, director of communications and advocacy for IntraHealth International, which empowers health workers to better serve communities in need.
The “family planning” language was not only affecting the way young women viewed contraceptive use, but also determined who service providers felt comfortable offering contraceptives to — typically, women who were planning families within the context of marriage.
The usage of family planning has also deeply influenced the way local government ministries, district mayors and hospitals think and talk about contraceptive use, Hoemeke noted.
The term family planning was the political outcome of a very long discussion in the early ‘60s about how to change the language from “population control” to something warmer and more approachable. At the time, it was a win. The notion of population control was the antithesis of what family planners wanted to be able to capture in very few words, Sheffield told Devex. Family planning encompassed sexual and reproductive health and needs much more successfully.
And the term isn’t going anywhere — partly because it is still effective as a way to define contraceptive use within marriage and partly because it’s so ingrained in development work around the world. Gates Foundation has a family planning division, and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s budget line may be called “population,” but all project language refers to family planning.
“It would take a revolution to change it at this point,” Hoemeke said.
Youth around the world are taking on the challenge, and helping to redefine the language used to describe their sexual and reproductive health needs.
In the past 20 years, Hoemeke’s work has changed greatly thanks to increased youth involvement: “It’s work driven by youth ambassadors, they’ve been promoting [contraceptive use] themselves, they’re the ones active on social media, they’ve adopted their own terms…”
Nothing demonstrates that more than 2013 International Conference on Family Planning in Ethiopia, when youth chose the theme for the pre-conference: “Future planning.” It was there that youth ambassadors came together to form the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning, an alliance of young individuals with the common mission to support provision of comprehensive reproductive health care services.
“Imagine 20 young, keen advocates in a room at the largest family planning conference in the world,” Jillian Gedeon, 25-year-old IYAFP co-founder, told Devex. “Within that week, we created the [IYAFP], wrote a constitution, created a website, secured partners and funding.”
Today, IYAFP has 56 country coordinators — youth between the ages of 15 and 30 who are passionate about family planning as a human right — leading projects and campaigns relevant to their own communities. Nigeria’s IYAFP country coordinator, for example, is creating a peer education network so that rural youth can have sexual and reproductive health curriculum in their schools, Gedeon shared.
Future planning is a “safe phrase that can give a space for people to have discussions, talk about various needs and concerns,” Gedeon explained. But in creating the alliance, founders made the choice to use “family planning” in the name in order to align themselves with the language used by the development community and “avoid backlash from policymakers or country governments that aren’t on board with provisions of comprehensive sexual education,” Gedeon explained.
Development community responds
A united, energetic and louder youth voice hasn’t been lost on the larger development community. In response, more organizations are focusing on human-centered design, deeply rooted in empathy and understanding the end user’s needs.
The nonprofit arm of Silicon Valley design firm IDEO, for example, has eschewed large market research studies for spending a few weeks in the field with handful of girls, their influencers and others in their lives.
“The first things that always comes up is that ‘family planning isn’t for me, it’s only for married women,’” Jessa Blades, director of IDEO.org's Health XO program, told Devex. “A lot of [our work] is trying to shift the mindset and the language.”
A lot of the design challenge is rooted in how to make contraception feel relatable and accessible for teenagers — and make it feel that way for influencers in their lives as well, she explained.
Often, introducing a less familiar term creates an opportunity to build new understanding and new connotations with that word. IDEO.org’s work in Kenya, for example, is called Future Fab. The program uses posters, magazines, fashion shows and parties that avoid leading with contraception and instead spark dialogues about the bright future for girls.
“Even if we said, ‘There’s free contraception over here for 15 to 19 year olds!’ — no one would come near it,” Blades explained. “Instead we’re trying to give contraception a makeover and associate it with things that teens care about.”
And the term “family planning” isn’t the only hangup when addressing the needs of adolescents.
In general, women tend to only learn about bodies and reproductive health upon menses, upon marriage and upon motherhood.
“Between those life events, it’s a desert,” Pam Scott, a philanthropist whose work focuses on the intersection of design and impact, told Devex. “There’s no information.”
Rather than concentrating so much on the language for a development project’s target audience, it’s important to consider the unintended consequences that language may have on people outside that target audience, according to Scott, who is focused on the issue of unintended teenage pregnancy in Tanzania.
In April, Devex attended a “design immersion” in the East African country hosted by Population Services International, where designers from California and development professionals from Tanzania wore T-shirts reading “Kuwa Mjanja,” Swahili for “be smart,” as they presented a movement that starts with girls at menses and continues with them to marriage.
The words represent the idea of not derailing one’s life by getting pregnant unintentionally, and the products bearing the phrase speak to both the girls who might be using the products — pads, condoms, and birth control packs — and also to service providers, Scott explained.
So is there one phrase — about choice, contraception and planning — that works for everyone?
Probably not. And it appears that youth, in conjunction with development practitioners around the world, are working toward a new language, or perhaps many different phrases, that meet young people where they are.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Future Fab is an IDEO project. It is an IDEO.org project.
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