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Demystifying birth control

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MAUREEN—I am now assured of finishing my school

As Malawi joined the rest of the world last Saturday in commemorating World Contraception Day, the occasion brought a flush of memories regarding myths surrounding the use of contraceptives, more especially among the youth.

There have been claims that long-term use of contraception makes it harder for one to get pregnant again while others have claimed that teenagers and women who have not had a child before need not use contraceptives.

19-year-old Maureen Issa got pregnant while in Standard Six and by that time, she was just sixteen.

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She opted for the Intrauterine Device (IUD) birth control.

“I got pregnant in 2016 and I had to stay home but fellow youths were visting me and encouraged me to go back to school after delivering my baby so in 2019, I took the IUD birth control method and currently, I am in Standard 8 and all is well,’’ she said.

Issa, based in Machinga, is among the youths that are accessing modern Family Planning (FP) methods in the district.

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Through the ‘Yes I Do’ project being implemented by a consortium of five organisations including Family Planning Association of Malawi (Fpam), Plan International, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), Amref Health Africa and the Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education (CYECE), Maureen got the courage to use modern contraceptive method.

Youth Friendly Health Services Coordinator for Machinga District, Kenneth Mkandawire said amid the Covid-19 pandemic which prompted the Ministry of Education to close schools for a while, most Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services were scaled down; affecting access to such services.

“In terms of teenage pregnancies, out of all the women who are pregnant in Machinga, about 43% are teenagers. This is so huge and from January to September, the number of teenage pregnancies reached around 2,303 which is also worrisome. We are thinking that the figures have risen due to the coming in of Covid-19,’’ he said.

A recent study by the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare indicated that 20,000 girls got pregnant between March and August this year, the time which schools were closed due to the Covid -19 pandemic.

It is in this regard that the need for contraceptive use among the youth cannot be overemphasized. The figures translate to triple as compared to last year around the same period when about 6000 girls fell pregnant between the months of March and August.

Fpam Executive Director Donald Makwakwa stressed the need to ensure that young people are accessing SRHR services amid increased cases of reported teenage pregnancies and child marriages in the country.

He is of the view that if many young people could have had access to contraceptive methods, the numbers of reported cases of young girls getting pregnant during the time schools were closed could have been reduced.

“People think that when we are encouraging them to use modern contraceptive methods then we are encouraging sexual immorality especially among the youth. Looking at the high numbers of young girls that have fallen pregnant within the five months period that schools were closed, it is clear that if they were using contraceptives, we could not be talking about such high numbers,’’ he said.

Makwakwa then dismissed fears that use of contraceptives may damage the womb or indeed cause other health problems.

“Negative myths and misconceptions about FP methods are a barrier to modern contraceptive use. People who use modern FP methods are just okay and when one is facing challenges because of a certain method, then the person is free to seek other FP methods,’’ he said.

Director of Reproductive Health Directorate at the Ministry of Health, Fannie Kachale, also said the number of teenage pregnancies in the country has increased and in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people going to access FP methods in facilities has reduced.

“During this period of Covid-19, some people are not coming to access contraceptive methods for fear of Covid-19. We have also observed that there has been an increase of youths that have actually come to get contraceptives in some districts like Lilongwe,’’ she said.

At the moment, in the face of growing debate on whether it is right for the youth to be accessing contraceptive methods or not, the age of consent to access SRHR service is still not clear.

“More young people are becoming sexually active at a tender age and becoming pregnant,’’ Kachale said.

Malawi made a commitment at the FP2012 London Summit to reach 60% modern contraceptive prevalence rate (mCPR) for all women by 2020 with specific focus on the 15-24 age group. Currently, the country has moved its mCPR for all women from 38% in 2012 to 48.3% in 2019.

It is therefore critical to meet the unmet need for FP in order to achieve the global commitment and also reduce cases of teenage pregnancies that are currently on the increase.

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