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What is the new normal for family planning?

Lindsay Bigda |

Family Planning, Men and Masculinities, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
“One thing that strikes me is that the idea of masculinity is not static; it is fluid, relational, changing.”

– Ravi Verma, Director, ICRW Asia

On March 2, ICRW Asia—in partnership with Vihara—released findings from the Couple Engage project, an effort to engage men as equal and supportive partners in family planning. Experts from ICRW, Vihara, Facebook and Pathfinder came together to discuss the new research and insights—and what they could mean for the future of family planning. Below is a snapshot of the discussion.

What were some of the most interesting or surprising insights from this new research?

Kuhika Seth (ICRW): To engage men and couples in an equitable and sustained way, it’s important that we have an approach that works across all layers of the ecosystem. Norms around family planning that stem from norms around fertility, sex, marriage and masculinity need to be negotiated within the couple space and outside of it. […] The way knowledge is accessed and distributed is also extremely gendered, and has a role in perpetuating myths and misconceptions. For example, men are often the ones with smartphones and with more access to public spaces, and were found to be the key sources and gatekeepers of information around contraceptives.

The health system’s approach to family planning uptake also needs to undergo a shift—from being a prescriptive, system-centered approach to one that is aligned and in tune with the needs of a couple. Communities and couples also need to understand the significance of family planning a lot more and create an enabling environment for the couples. And coming to the layer/space where the focus of the research lies: the couple. The question we ask here is: how can we improve capability amongst couples to contemplate and seek family planning services collectively?

Kapil Vachhar (Vihara): We observed that men play out different masculinities across their different life stages (providers, heads of household, procreator, performer), and that their perception of masculinity often conflicts with the notion of pleasure during sex. In our study, men evaluated their sexual expression along the lines of “performanceand saw intercourse as an area they needed to controland this included whether or not to use contraceptives and if, and when, to have children. These perceptions affected the way the couple experienced and talked about intimacy, and how they  approached family planning. We saw a lot of evidence that men had either incorrect or incomplete information about family planning. Nevertheless, their ideas controlled the couple’s contraceptive decisions.

"Coming to the layer/space where the focus of the research lies—the couple—the question we ask here is: how can we improve capability amongst couples to contemplate and seek family planning services collectively?"

– Kuhika Seth, ICRW Asia

Following up on this focus on the couple unit, what was learned about how to help couples negotiate family planning together?

Kuhika Seth (ICRW): Findings around knowledge were crucial; it was important for us to unpack our learnings from both the field and existing literature. Each couple has unique needs, depending on a range of aspectsand specific moments in the relationship and reproductive trajectory require tailored knowledge at those junctures. Open and informed communication in turn has the capacity to build agency and trust within the relationship; help a couple understand each person’s bodies and needs individually as well as collectively; and inspire couple-making activities where relationship bonds can be developed. Such couple-making activities build emotional intimacy that can be tapped into to make better family planning choices.

Watch the webinar: Transformative Approaches to Engaging Men and Couples to Accelerate Family Planning Outcomes

What new entry points have emerged to engage men as equal partners in family planning?

Kapil Vachhar (Vihara): The way we approached solution-making was to create 14 intervention strategies or activities, and then combine them to create more unique programs for various factors. One example of this kind of customization is creating a couple-making toolkit to help couples align on what their aspirations are. Some of the other solutions we looked into were creating a young fathers network, scenario-based training to improve interpersonal skills, and virtual relationship coaching that includes elements of communication, consent, mutual respect and pleasure in new and interesting ways.

Siddhartha Swarup (Facebook): To me male engagement is really about equality; so one thing we can look at is where technology can play a role in creating that equality. I see three core elements here: making family planning more relevant for men; empowering women themselves; and fostering equality in the couple’s relationship. For example, technology can provide opportunities for extremely safe spaces that are accessible to women. There are also some games that have been developed for couples to play together, to learn how to have uncomfortable discussions in a comfortable way.

Reshma Trasi (Pathfinder): I think we need to think about where and how we can leverage services that men are already seeking. What are the touch points within the health sector in general, and how do we then bundle family planning with other services? For example, if men are seeking primary healthcare, how do we bundle family planning there and have safe spaces within which to have these programs.

What opportunities has the COVID-19 pandemic given us to reimagine family planning?

Reshma Trasi (Pathfinder): Nothing pushes innovation like a crisisand the opportunity for us to be trying new models is something that will help us build back better. Hopefully this will also help us as a sector to do better with integrated programming. I think the COVID-19 crisis has shown us the critical link between health, livelihoods and economics, and I hope that this will lead us to more integrated programming, perhaps even extending into climate change.

Ravi Verma (ICRW): We always say that masculinitythat the whole idea of genderis situated within the larger content, and the context has changed so much. What has it done to gender relations at the micro level? And I picked up a key from you all: that no one couple is the same. That needs to be looked at more carefully. We need to do a lot of research on norms and managing these kinds of crisis situations.

Watch the webinar:


Our Facts. Our Future. is a series from ICRW that highlights our latest learning and features experts’ and partners’ reflections on their work. Our Facts. Our Future. aims to center diverse voices and explore new and more inclusive ways of working together to advance the rights of women, girls and marginalized people worldwide.

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Lindsay Bigda

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