Nepal far from hitting contraceptive target

Social stigma, misconceptions still hamper access to birth control

Parvati Thapa, 39, looks lost as she wanders into the district hospital in this isolated northwestern corner of Nepal. She and her husband have walked a whole day to get here, and they just found out she is 19 weeks pregnant.

Thapa already has three children, and after they were born she lost four sons one after another. After her menstruation stopped, she suspected menopause but now knows she is pregnant for the eighth time.

“My husband is away for months at a time, tending cattle in the mountains. Why should I use family planning when we meet so rarely?” asks Thapa, who looks much older than her age.

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Like most women in the remote mountains, Thapa has never used contraceptives. Doing so carries a stigma for married women with migrant husbands, and there are misconceptions about the different methods available. The result is that women suffer unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and end up with large families they are  unable to take care of.

Nepal’s contraceptive prevalence rate is 53%, but in Bajura it is only 34%. Although this is a dramatic improvement from 20 years ago, it is still a long way from the government’s target of 75% contraceptive prevalence by 2030. The fact that the use of modern family planning methods has plateaued since 2006 points to futher deterrences.

“The family planning rate is really low in Bajura because a lot of the men migrate to India for work,” says nurse Dhankala Khadka at Bajura District Hospital. “If the husband is away and the wife wants to use birth control, she is often questioned about fidelity and may be ostracised by her community. Even husbands do not support them.”

Parvati Thapa went to Bajura district hospital suspecting menopause, but found out it was her eighth pregnancy. Photo: MONIKA DEUPALA

Almost every woman who visited nurse Khadka on a busy day last month had the same story: their husbands were away and they did not use birth control.

There were 804 abortions in Bajura in the past year, which Rohit Giri of Bajura District Hospital says is very high: “Most who come to us are married women with children, and the abortions are due to the lack of birth control, which leads to unwanted pregnancies.”

In Bayalpata Hospital in neighbouring Achham district, the story is much the same — it performed 660 abortions in the past year. Bhawana Rawal, 33, has had two abortions at the hospital in the past five years and admits she does not used birth control.

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“I already have two children, and do not need any more, but I got pregnant twice by accident,” she says. “I still do not want to use contraceptives in future.” Rawal did try a Depo-Provera injection once but says it made her bleed too much. Other women have the same complaint. For those who do not want to use a permanent contraception, many felt pills were a hassle to acquire and take every day, and IUDs hurt.

“Unwanted pregnancies often lead to anaemia because women lose so much blood,” says Kalawati Setthi, a nurse at Bayalpata Hospital. Nearly 40% of women in Far-western Nepal were found in a survey to be anaemic — most of them pregnant and breastfeeding.

The government has put up posters in rural hospitals to encourage contraceptive use but at this rate, it is unlikely that the target of 75% contraceptive use will be reached.

Demand, but no supply

According to the Nepal Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) 2016, there is a 24% unmet need for family planning in Nepal — a quarter of women who need contraceptives are not using them. A report by Population Services international (PSI) Nepal found that unmarried youth aged 15-24 and married women aged 20-24 are the groups that use contraceptives the least.

Married women like Parvati Thapa at a clinic in Bajura last month (left), normally tended to use contraceptives after their first child, and exposure to information about family planning through health workers and current users of family planning, as well as talking about it with husbands or relatives.

Unmarried youth were likely to discuss family planning only with their sexual partners and most used condoms over other methods, which were bought and kept by the male partner. In contrast, married women visited health facilities themselves and chose the type of method they wanted.

Unmarried youth, especially adolescents, had a higher unmet need and were more vulnerable to stigma associated with family planning. The report argues that the term ‘family planning’ only applies to married women and their plan to have children, whereas there are many contraceptive users who have no intention of having children, or use contraceptives to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs).

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When a woman goes to a public health facility for contraceptives, a register is filled out, which includes a column for ‘husband’s name’, which is another deterrent for unmarried women. Though the husband’s name is optional, there is no column for the wife’s name when it comes to male contraceptives like condoms or a vasectomy.

A report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) about sexual and reproductive health says complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 in low-income countries like Nepal. Unwanted pregnancies also hamper women’s education and economic independence, and impact their family life, fuelling an intergenerational cycle of poverty and poor health.

More choice for family planning

Although Nepal’s contraceptive prevalence rate has increased dramatically, from 7% in 1981 to nearly 60% today, social taboos, patriarchy and unavailability mean that many women still do not have access to birth control.

It usually falls on women to take the initiative, since many men refuse to use condoms or get a vasectomy. Popular contraceptives used to be the pill or Depo-Provera, an injectable that needs refrigeration and must be taken at a clinic, but the dosage is high and the injection painful.

Now, women like Shanti Adhikari, 43, in Chitwan, (pictured, right) who have always used Depo-provera for short-term contraception, have a new choice: Sayana Press.

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Adhikari’s husband, who works as a security guard in India, will be coming home for Dasain, so she is at the health post in Nawalpur for her Depo-Provera progesterone hormone injection, which prevents pregnancy for three months.

But auxiliary nurse midwife Sharada Rimal (pictured, left) tells her about Sayana Press. Its advantages over Depo-Provera are that it comes with its own small needle, the dosage is much smaller, it is less painful and can be self-injected.

“Everyone in my neighbourhood comes to this health post for contraceptives, but no one told me about this new injection. The needle looks much smaller, I think I will go with this one,” says Adhikari, 43, as Rimal proceeded to inject her in the thigh.

Sayana Press, a successor to Depo-Provera, is being launched in Nepal in two districts: Nawalpur and Sindhuli, by the reproductive health agency Ipas Nepal in coordination with the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Ministry of Health and Population (MoH). The drug has already been tried and approved, and is available for use in 40 European countries.

What sets Sayana apart from Depo-Provera is the smaller dosage (104 mg compared to 150), it comes with its own needle, it can be stored at room temperature and is injected sub-cutaneously (just under the skin), rather than in the muscles like Depo-Provera.

Injectable contraceptives are the most popular reversible contraceptive among women, for a variety of reasons. Adhikari says she does not like pills because she has to remember to take them every day, and, because of her age, she wants to be discreet about using them.

While most other methods, like IUCDs, implants, condoms and pills, are visible and can be discovered by others, an injection leaves no traces. 52% married couples use contraceptives in Nepal: 8.9% use injectables, 4.6% are on pills, 4.2% use condoms, 1.4% use IUDs and only 3.3% use implants. 9.8% use other traditional methods. Some have gone for permanent contraception, with 14.7% preferring female Sterilization and 5.5% male Sterilization.

“Depo-Provera has been in use for 50 years, but it was so popular and effective not much further research was done on it,” explains Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa of Ipas. “But WHO studies found that a much lower dosage was enough.”

Health workers like Rimal confirm that Sayana Press is much easier to inject, more portable and less painful. Though it is self-injectable in some countries, in Nepal, where it has been undergoing trials in 14 health facilities of Nawalpur and Sindhuli since 5 September, it will only be administered by health professionals.

Bhim Singh Tinkari of the MoH Family Welfare Division says that since 7% of pregnant women still die from unsafe abortions, making contraceptives easily accessible can save lives. Binod Bindu Sharma of the MoH links contraceptives to women’s choice and empowerment. “The availability of contraceptives is important for women’s rights, since it lets women choose when and how many children to have,” says Sharma, adding that the ministry is making Sayana Press available for free in health facilities.

Lisa Honan, head of DFID Nepal, links contraceptives with women’s economic potential, adding that the country can make better use of women in the workforce if they have better choices of contraceptives. “DFID is committed to providing Sayana in any volume in Nepal until 2022 through UNFPA (the UN Population Fund), and would help Nepal scale it up all over the country if the results of the feasibility study are positive.”

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