March 21, 2011

Gates visits Jhpiego program in Kenya, hears about family planning

During a visit to Jhpiego-supported programs in a slum outside Nairobi, Kenya, Melinda Gates kept hearing the same message: Women want to plan their families so they can provide for their children and give them opportunities they never had.

“I talked to more than 50 women about family planning when I was in Kenya, and all but one told me how desperately they wanted to plan their families and space their children,” said Gates, whose family’s Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently chose Jhpiego, a Johns Hopkins affiliate, to lead Tupange, its $23 million urban reproductive health program in Kenya.

Whether speaking through a Swahili translator or finding their voice in English, women who met Gates recognized that spacing their children in a healthy manner would enable them to better care for their families so all would thrive.

“I asked a group of women why they wanted to practice family planning. One woman summed it all up when she said, “I want to bring every good thing to one before I have another,” Gates said. “It just reinforced what I always come away from these conversations realizing—that mothers everywhere want the same things for their children, that we all want to set our children up for a successful future.”

Jhpiego, whose urban health program has been recognized for its innovative strategies to increase access to quality health care and services for Kenyans, hosted Gates during a daylong visit.

As Gates talked with wives and mothers, they shared their challenges in getting adequate family-planning services, such as disapproving husbands, physical infirmities and inadequately supplied health clinics. But Gates also learned about new family-planning methods that were being offered to Kenyan women.

“I visited a health clinic in Kariobangi, and I happened to be there on the day set aside for long-term family planning, including tubal ligation, IUCDs [intrauterine contraceptive devices] and implants,” she said. “The women I talked to were really excited about the implants. They called them ‘batteries,’ because they work for four years. I got to see a woman having the procedure done, and it was just amazing to me how easy, quick and relatively painless the procedure is. It’s such a cost-effective and effective way to give women the ability to plan.”

Throughout her visit, Gates was heartened, she said, by women’s support for one another and the example set by a volunteer health worker named Maureen.

“She was an HIV-positive mother, and one of her five children also had HIV,” Gates said. “Now she is running a program where HIV-positive mothers counsel pregnant women with HIV about preventing mother-to-child transmission. The most important thing, she said, was helping the women realize that others just like them had overcome the same obstacles. In her words, this was ‘living positively,’” Gates said. “Maureen told me that in her program, they haven’t had a baby born with HIV since August—and that’s more than 30 healthy children.”