SEATTLE — A startling 214 million women around the world today lack access to contraception. While in some places birth control is simply not available, in many parts of Africa and other continents, fear and contraception myths keep women from employing the birth control methods at their disposal. In sub-Saharan Africa in particular, more than half of all sexually active women ages 15 to 49 who do not want to become pregnant are not using birth control.
Common misconceptions about birth control and lack of access can cut women off from many life-changing benefits. When women are able to exercise some control over their fertility, they are given more agency over their lives and the lives of the people around them. Women who use birth control are more likely to finish their schooling, and as a result more capable of lifting themselves and their families out of poverty.
Children of mothers who use family planning methods are also more likely to be healthy and receive an education — benefits that demonstrate the domino effects of birth control in bettering the communities in which it is used. Contraception additionally saves lives, since 289,000 women die every year from causes related to pregnancy.
Despite the advantages of birth control, contraception myths still reign supreme in many societies, discouraging women from even talking to their doctors about birth control options. For example, many women in the developing world fear Western roots of modern contraception. A 2012 outreach program in Nigeria, sponsored by non-profit Marie Stopes International and the British Government to bring birth control to countries in need, elucidated how a fear of birth control providers influenced women’s decisions in Nigeria’s Gitata village.
“One of the commonest misconceptions is thinking that family planning is a Western ideology to stop women from giving birth completely,” said Dr. Kingsley Odogwu of Marie Stopes Nigeria.
Women also avoid birth control because they hear from their friends and family members that birth control can be tied to negative side effects, even though those side effects are often false or blown out of proportion. Researchers for The Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care found the fear of side effects to be a powerful deterrent when they studied the medical beliefs of 91 Ghanaian women.
Many of the participants worried that hormonal birth control can dangerously change a woman’s menstrual cycle, leading to life-threatening conditions. “You see fibroid is caused by blood clot and when you use some of them [hormonal methods]it causes your menses to stop,” one interviewee said, “so the blood remains there and it clots leading to fibroid.” The study reported that misconceptions like this one are often spread by hearsay among women in tight-knit communities.
The same study found that many women suspect that using contraception at a young age will cause infertility. “You see, if you are a girl who has never given birth and you are taking those tablets, it can delay you in giving birth when you get married,” said one of the study’s participants. In countries like Ghana where infertility is a considerable concern for women, such a rumor may effectively deter women from using contraception.
Most participants in the study also communicated the belief that it is only safe to purchase birth control at a hospital, and that a doctor must perform a blood test to determine the right variety of birth control for each patient. This could potentially keep women from seeking out contraceptives at pharmacies, where many methods of birth control may be readily accessible.
Contraception and Women
Studies also show that around the globe, contraception is thought to be exclusively a woman’s job, and that men do not invest in sterilization procedures nearly as much as their female counterparts. A 2013 study showed that 18.9 percent of the world’s women are sterilized, while 2.2 percent of men have had vasectomies. In Africa, vasectomy rates are especially low – only 0.1 percent of men in Africa have been sterilized. Although vasectomies have proven effective and inexpensive, they have remained relatively underused due to lack of information and a widespread association with emasculation.
Dispelling the many contraception myths circulating the African continent will prove important to public health workers who seek to properly address underuse of contraceptives in Africa and around the world. Numerous researchers, such as Dr. Ilene Speizer of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, believe that targeting these myths will have positive results on the affected populations.
“It is unfortunate that in many contexts myths and rumors travel faster than truths,” Speizer said. “Public health programs need to consider strategies to promote the benefits of contraception to the health and well-being of women and their families and identify champions of family planning who can spread these more positive messages.”
While addressing contraception myths is not easy and requires a fundamental change in the dialogue surrounding birth control, it will ultimately help women take charge of their reproductive health and their economic futures.
– Sabine Poux