Pulitzer Center Update

Family Planning in Ethiopia Finds Unexpected Advocates

Supporters celebrate passage of the reproductive health bill in the Philippines' House of Representatives. Image by Jay Directo / AFP/Getty Images. Philippines, 2012.

Ethiopia is currently experiencing an “unusual level of support for contraception among Ethiopia’s religious leaders,” which has led to a leap in contraceptive use as well as a healthy decline in the nation’s fertility rate, as reported by Ariel Zirulnick in the Christian Science Monitor on July 25, 2014.

Over the past 15 years, contraception use in Ethiopia has more than tripled, according to Ethiopia’s Demographic and Health Survey, in no small part thanks to endorsement by the country's imams and priests. Even Orthodox Christian women living in rural areas are embracing contraceptive use. Mebrate Tenangne from the village of Mosebo spoke to the Christian Science Monitor about using birth control after the birth of her daughter due to concerns over whether she and her husband could care for a second child.

But Ethiopia, where religious leaders have been persuaded by health workers, doctors, and NGOs that family planning promotes women’s health and helps reduce poverty, represents the exception rather than the norm.

On April 8, 2014, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld a new law that would provide free contraceptives to poor women. But, in a country where the Catholic Church still holds huge influence over this mostly Catholic population, President Benigno Aquino III faced threats of excommunication for signing the law. Catholic volunteer groups in the Philippines continue to advocate for natural family planning or abstinence, and the use of contraceptives is perceived as immoral.

As reported by Pulitzer Center senior editor Tom Hundley, surveys indicate that in the Philippines, over half of the pregnancies that occur each year are unintended or unwanted. Annually, 475,000 to 600,000 women undergo illegal and unsafe abortions and at least 100,000 of those women later end up hospitalized for subsequent complications.

Backlash and stigma against contraceptives perpetuated by religious leaders is just one of the reasons why over 200 million women worldwide have an unmet need for contraceptives. Lack of access to reproductive health education or family planning services and the perpetuation of myths about birth control methods also contribute to this crisis, leading to unplanned and unwanted pregnancies and upwards of 50 million abortions each year.

In Nigeria, many people believe that using condoms leads to Thunderbolt disease–a traditional Yoruba curse, also known as magun, that men put on their partners that supposedly leads to the death of any partner engaging in an extramarital affair. There are also fears that contraceptives will cause impotence, infertility, or weight gain. Pulitzer Center grantees Allyn Gaestel and Allison Shelley have reported on these misconceptions and a general lack of knowledge about contraceptives. According to Gaestel and Shelley, in 2005 less than 50 percent of Nigerian women had even heard of contraception.

But developments in Brazil demonstrate that these deeply rooted misconceptions can shift, just as they did in Ethiopia. Pulitzer Center grantee Fred de Sam Lazaro traveled to Rio de Janeiro to report on how increased access to education, information, and contraception has been used effectively and helped empower women.

Despite having one of the largest Catholic populations in the world, 80 percent of Brazilian women are using some form of birth control. As one woman Lazaro interviewed for a piece broadcast by PBS NewsHour explained: "You only get pregnant if you want to because we have free access to any sort of family planning."