Jeffrey Locke recently joined PAI as a Legislative Policy Associate, where he will help educate policymakers and their staff about the importance of international family planning and reproductive health programs. In this blog, he talks about why, after two years in Togo, he decided to come to Washington to work on family planning issues.
After over two years as a community health volunteer for the Peace Corps in Togo, I don’t have a canned, thirty-second response answer to why I wanted to work on issues of international family planning. I do, however, have a story.
An old woman, gap-toothed and well past child-bearing age, started the session in my village in rural Togo with a question: “Why don’t our husbands just accept that I don’t need to have a kid every time we have sex?”
The room broke up with laughter and the clucking of tongues to display agreement. From this first question, I realized that the sexual dynamics of married couples in my village were entirely different than what I had previously known. I had invited Afi, our clinic’s midwife, to educate a group of village midwives on family planning options available at the clinic, and instead I was the one being educated.
Afi asked if women in their villages were seeking advice on how to access family planning.
“Yeah, but they’re scared,” replied this old woman.
“Scared of what?” Afi asked.
A younger woman holding a baby stated, “Women are scared that their husbands will become unhappy and that the rumors that you won’t be able to have kids again were true. But how can you pay for another child’s schooling? How can you have enough meat? The men, they’re not thinking.”
This was the dilemma facing married women in my village. These married women lacked enforceable rape protection laws, yet culturally were responsible for the growth of their family. False rumors flew quickly in rural Togo, and in an effort to put these rumors to rest, Afi was encouraging these midwives to share their knowledge on safe and efficient family planning options available at the clinic.
The older midwife then spoke. She described how in order to visit Afi, women had to “steal away from their husbands” or even “fake an illness to avoid suspicion.” I felt overwhelmed.
Yet while these women were focused on providing for their family, and risked personal harm to visit our clinic, I learned where my part in their inability to access contraception came. Afi would later admit to me that stock-outs of contraception methods occurred frequently due to non-governmental organization (NGO) and government funding issues. Afi was trained by Population Services International to boost family planning efforts in rural areas, and her demeanor reflected the embattled veteran of ten years that she was. She seemed resigned to this bleak reality and shrugged it off as the “way things are” — a woman would make her day long journey only to find a health clinic lacking contraception.
I don’t have the inner strength of Afi to accept how “things are” and continue to soldier on. Every day scores of women left their work in the fields and set off for my village clinic, located almost twenty kilometers down a dirt road. In America “hiking” is only a hobby and pharmacies are readily available. For over two years I routinely witnessed Togolese women “hiking” in flip flops under the African sun, with a baby wrapped around their back, en route to a pharmacy for their family.
As a community health volunteer, I had come to Togo expecting to grapple with issues like poverty and women’s rights; I walked away from discussions like this one realizing that answers to these issues are inextricably linked to promoting family planning. Women with “unmet contraceptive need” are not just numbers to me — they are my friends and family in Togo, and their courage to seek family planning is contagious. I’m here at PAI because I believe that when millions of women risk personal harm and make their “hike” to health clinics throughout Togo and the rest of the developing world, we should be doing our part to have resources waiting.