Can New Voices on Social Media Influence Attitudes about Contraception in West Africa?

In Benin, Mali, and Senegal, some new voices are coming together to change attitudes about family planning: religious leaders, community activists, human rights advocates, and journalists are teaming up with health experts to increase knowledge of and positive attitudes about family planning. Now, with support from IntraHealth International, they are using social media and a new website to share these messages and learn from each other.

IntraHealth is leading an initiative to engage civil society groups in these three countries to encourage use of modern family planning methods in West Africa, where contraceptive prevalence has been historically low. Coalitions of civil society representatives have formed in all three countries and members of each coalition have participated in a five-day workshop focused on using social media and video production to promote family planning. The coalitions include representatives from local health and population organizations, women’s and youth groups, religious networks, and journalists. A website recently launched to connect the efforts of the three country-level coalitions, share information about the initiative, and provide forums for coalition members to ask questions and share experiences.

“The world is evolving so much today that we can’t afford to lose time in the transmission of information,” said one coalition member from Benin.    

Her sense of urgency is justified. In Benin only 8% of women use modern methods of family planning, according to preliminary results of the 2011/2012 Demographic and Health Survey. The statistic is 9% in Senegal1 and a mere 6% in Mali2. These rates are well below the African average of 24% and have stagnated despite significant investments and commitments3. These countries all have high rates of maternal mortality as well. In 2012, an estimated 291,000 women in developing countries will die from pregnancy-related causes; more than one-third of these women will not have wanted to become pregnant4.

Recent social media workshops, held in each country by IntraHealth partner e-TRI, introduced coalition members to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogging, and video production. The focus was on how these tools can be used to reach more people, and particularly more young people, with positive family planning messages.

“Social media have a special place in the way people communicate today; it is essential that we integrate this technology into critical social issues such as family planning,” said Senam Beheton, the director of e-TRI. Based in Cotonou, Benin, e-TRI is an information and communication technologies for development organization that supports innovation hubs and related technology services for clients and organizations throughout Africa.

This initiative, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, recognizes that while obstacles within the health system prevent many women from accessing contraceptives—including limited access to health services in rural areas and contraceptive stock-outs—rates of contraceptive use will not rise significantly without a strong demand for family planning services by the population. Decisions about limiting or spacing pregnancies are deeply personal and influenced by family, religious, and cultural norms. Changing attitudes and behaviors around family planning requires engaging those who influence these norms—voices from within and outside the health sector—to promote the positive impact family planning can have at the family, community, and national levels.

The initiative is designed to build on agreements made by eight French-speaking West African countries at a 2011 meeting in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on family planning in the context of population and development. The agreements included a commitment to reduce maternal mortality and unmet need for family planning in the region by 25% by 2015.

The Strengthening Civil Society Engagement for Family Planning initiative is led by IntraHealth International and funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Follow the initiative on Facebook and Twitter.

1. Enquête Démographique et de Santé à Indicateurs Multiples au Sénégal (EDS-MICS) 2010-2011

2. Enquête Démographique et de Santé du Mali 2006

3. World Health Organization, 2012. Family Planning Fact Sheet.

4. Guttmacher Institute and UNFPA. Adding It Up: Costs and Benefits of Contraceptive Services—Estimates for 2012.