Environment, Family Planning, International Policies

Family Planning Benefits Malagasy Women and the Environment

Kame Westerman is PAI’s Climate Change Intern. She is a current graduate student in Sustainable Development & Conservation Biology at the University of Maryland.

As an environment volunteer with the Peace Corps, I was given the task
of visiting outlying villages and promoting sustainable agricultural
techniques – the hope being that with increased agricultural efficiency
and sustainability, there would be less need to harvest from the
surrounding forests.  Yet as I quickly came to understand, sustainable
agricultural techniques are a moot point if the regions’ unsustainable
fertility rate of just over five children per woman continues.

The locals – living on the edge of one of the largest remaining
forests in Madagascar – have relied for generations on the forest’s
seemingly endless bounty of natural resources: wood for building houses
and carving canoes; firewood for cooking meals; leaves and tubers to
supplement the daily diet of rice; and, of course, lemur and bat
bushmeat.  However, with burgeoning villages and new single family
settlements cropping up in remote regions, forest land is rapidly being
converted to residential and agricultural uses.

The situation is exacerbated by certain cultural practices that
encourage women to become pregnant when they are still young.  It is
believed that a woman with a child is more desirable because she has
already proved her fertility; therefore, it is not uncommon for a woman
to have her first child early and with a different man than her
subsequent children.  In addition, being a culture dependent on
subsistence agriculture increases the desire for a large family to help
in the fields, tend animals, care for younger children, and cook meals.

While many women do want large families, many others do not: a 2004 survey by the UN
shows a 24% unmet need for family planning services in the country. In
other words, about one in four women would like to delay their next
pregnancy or stop having children altogether, but don’t have access to
the information and services that would enable them to do so.  Along
with my environmental work, I began to focus on incorporating family
planning and public health into my activities. Armed with a variety of
educational tools provided by Peace Corps, I held several meetings with
women in my village to introduce information on various family planning
options.  Although initially drawn to the meetings out of curiosity
about “the white girl”, the women were eager to learn about and discuss
family planning methods – albeit with plenty of giggling. 

Unlike many areas on the African continent, Malagasy women have rather significant standing in society (the 2008 Gender Equity Index
- which looks at female involvement in economic activity, empowerment,
and education – ranks Madagascar alongside Japan!).  This does not
necessarily mean, however, that in rural villages such as mine, women
have sufficient access to family planning information or supplies. The
local community clinic, run by two male doctors, is understaffed,
underfunded, and undersupplied.  As my female friends explained, if
they wanted to plan their families, women would have to discuss the
rather taboo subject with a man, risk the small community finding out
(including her husband, who may or may not be supportive), and most
likely would find a lack of supplies; the only other alternative would
be a hike of at least five hours one-way to the regional town. 

While I arrived in Madagascar with the hope of protecting the island’s famous biological diversity
, it became clear that helping the stewards of the land – the local
people – is the only effective way to protect the environment.  Without
improving the health and welfare of communities, population growth
rates will continue to soar, and the increased demands on forest
resources will diminish any conservation effort.  Through health
programs and voluntary family planning we can greatly improve our
conservation outcomes.  For further information on family planning
challenges faced in Madagascar and how those challenges relate to the
nation’s unique and vital natural resources, see Population Action
International’s documentary, Finding Balance- Forests and Family Planning in Madagascar

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