Text Messaging and the Link to Family Planning

Nov 14th, 2013 | By | Category: Reproductive Rights/Women's Rights

By Suzanne York, www.howmany.org

The 2013 International Conference on Family Planning is in full swing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, concentrated around the them of “Full Access, Full Choice.”

The nearly 4,000 participants are energized around bringing family planning and reproductive rights to communities in need the world over.  Ethiopia, the second most-populous nation in Africa, was selected as the host due to its strong commitment to voluntary family planning services.  The unmet need for family planning has decreased here, and there has been a decline in the total fertility rate from 5.4 to 4.8 children per woman.

[photo credit: http://www.m4rh.fhi360.org]

Population growth is still a challenge, not only in Ethiopia but across Sub-Saharan Africa.   The plenaries and workshops at the conference are highlighting hundreds of innovative policies, programs and initiatives that are being implemented in an attempt to empower women, girls, families, and stabilize population growth.

Promise of Technology

One much talked about theme is the use of mobile phone technology to address the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs of youth.  The use of mobile technology in health (referred to as mHealth) is rapidly growing in low and middle income countries. Globally, there are nearly 6 billion mobile phone subscribers, and approximately one-third are under the age of 30, so this is a key demographic to reach in terms of reproductive health.  Mobile phones are a low cost method to reach millions with critical SRH information.

One specific project in Rwanda is called m4RH. Developed by FHI 360 (Family Health International), it is a text message based mobile phone communication system that gives users information about a full range of contraceptive methods.

Young people have low SRH knowledge, misconceptions about contraceptive methods, and lack of appropriate places to seek SRH information.  Rwandan government health statistics show that by age 18, 17% of young women and 27% of young men have had sex, thus there is a great need to reach this demographic.

There are three main components of the m4RH platform:

  • youth friendly messages on puberty, sex and pregnancy, HIV, STIs, pregnancy prevention models
  • role model stories
  • youth friendly services directory


There are some potential barriers to this initiative, including: religious objections to family planning and myths that injectables as a form of birth control will lead to infertility.  And while SRH messages are popular and acceptable with youth, further evidence is needed of the effects of mHealth on contraception knowledge and attitudes.

Still, there is support for SRH education using text messaging from both youth and adults.  In this particular project, parents felt the system will increase their credibility with their children, and that the information being given was appropriate for youth.

One youth, when asked about the m4RH text messaging project, stated that “It gives answers to questions we have been asking ourselves.”  In Rwanda, and around the world, all effort should be made to make sure questions about reproductive health and family planning are answered.

Suzanne York is Senior Writer with the Institute for Population Studies and is currently attending the 2013 International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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