What “family planning” actually means

Last year, I had the privilege of facilitating a focus group discussion, comprised of young women aged 18 to 25, on attitudes towards abortion. Many of their thoughts and perspectives were severely misinformed. Like for example, one young lady was completely against abortion for any reasons because she believed this would result in widespread outbreak of what I believed to be drug resistant Tuberculosis. I’ll give you a little background. There is a cultural belief in Zambia that if a woman prepares food or adds salt (seasoning) to food when she is menstruating, whoever eats the food is likely to suffer from a terrible cough. So this young lady believed that by making safe and legal abortion services available to all women, we would be putting the country at risk of an epidemic. All young women would start having unprotected sex, they would all eventually get pregnant and they would all want to have abortions; this would leave us no non-menstruating women to prepare food and thus all the men would suffer from a terrible drug resistant cough. Crazy right?

What’s crazy is that this idea did not leave as much of an impression on me as the next one, the idea this blog is about. Sure it was a crazy idea, but I was also certain it wasn’t true, and that’s why it wasn’t what has kept me thinking since then. This is – when asked about what they thought about family planning, one young lady said something along the lines of “…why do I need it? Even the name says family planning, planning of the family. If I’m not married what am I planning for?” I had never thought about how important language was until that very moment

Young women in Zambia, like many women all over the world, experience many barriers when it comes to access to contraceptives. These barriers range from opposition from partners to infrequency of sexual encounters, from myths and misconceptions about the use and side effects of modern contraceptives to lack of information about different options. One of the barriers I would put in the top three is the language and labeling that surrounds contraceptives. Sexual and reproductive health organizations go into the community and empower young ladies with information. They tell them about their bodies and how they work, they tell them about how they can protect themselves from disease and they encourage them to work hard in school so that they can improve their livelihoods and, by extent, those of their families. Then they tell them about how they can exercise agency over their bodies and choose when they want to have children and they tell them the way they can do that is through something called FAMILY planning.

The first definition of the word family I ever heard was that it comprised of a mother, a father and children, with the mother and father always being husband and wife. I am a young woman and I believe I can do and be anything as long as I set my mind to it. I understand how my body works and I love myself; I know how to protect myself and others from disease and I am comfortable in my skin. I know I am not ready to have children right now and I am excited to plan for them when I am, but when I walk to the health center and I see the poster that has the initials ‘FP’ (Family Planning) and an arrow showing me where to go, I have to muster all my willpower to turn and walk down that corridor because I don’t feel like I truly belong. Young women need to feel a sense of belonging when it comes to issues around accessing contraceptives. We need services that are branded in a way that resonates with what being a young African woman is really about; otherwise, access to contraceptives interventions for young women are merely shooting in the dark.