Family Planning and Tropical Fisheries: Valuable Lessons for Sustainable Development

Vik Mohan

Blue Ventures Conservation | Medical Director
In southwest Madagascar, many people rely exclusively on the sea for their livelihoods. © Garth Cripps for Blue Ventures

In southwest Madagascar, many people rely exclusively on the sea for their livelihoods. © Garth Cripps for Blue Ventures

How is family planning helping to rebuild tropical fisheries? What might we learn from this as we turn our attention to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

Last month, I was in Madagascar to mark the eighth birthday of Safidy, a community health programme run by marine conservation organisation Blue Ventures. At the same time, and on the opposite side of the globe, the final wording for the Global Goals for Sustainable Development was being agreed upon.

“Safidy,” meaning “the freedom to choose” in Malagasy, empowers women and couples to make their own reproductive health choices, through providing health education as well as family planning and basic maternal health services. Meanwhile, Blue Ventures’ core mission is to rebuild tropical fisheries with coastal communities. Eight years on, how do we see the work of Safidy contributing to locally led management of marine resources? More broadly, what does this tell us about family planning and its role in sustainable development?

Irene is now a passionate advocate of family planning in her village. © Garth Cripps for Blue Ventures

Irene is now a passionate advocate of family planning in her village. © Garth Cripps for Blue Ventures

Irene lives in the village of Tampolove on the southwest coast of Madagascar. Along this arid coastline, seminomadic fishing communities rely exclusively on the sea for their livelihoods. In a nation where 92% of the population lives on less than $2 per day, these are some of the poorest and most isolated communities in the country. Falling pregnant whilst still at secondary school, Irene regrets having been unable to complete her education. However, after the birth of her son, she started to use contraception, thanks to the family planning services offered through Safidy. As a result of being able to delay having another child until she is ready, she’s been able to engage in Blue Ventures’ community-based aquaculture programme and earn an income. She’s now able to provide for her son and pay his school fees. Control over her fertility and increased economic independence have boosted Irene’s confidence. She’s now a passionate advocate of family planning in her village.

We’re seeing a cohort of women like Irene, who are using family planning to space their births or delay their first pregnancy. They’re able to finish their education and engage in income-generating activities, thereby diversifying income sources for their families. We’re seeing examples of greater women’s involvement in civil society, as well as in fisheries and marine resource management (historically men’s domains). It’s really exciting to see how family planning is leading to greater sexual equality and to women believing they can have greater control over their lives. As well as being of huge importance in itself, this is also serving to strengthen community participation in the sustainable management of marine resources.

Communities are more able to live healthily and sustainably. © Brian Jones for Blue Ventures.

Communities are more able to live healthily and sustainably. © Brian Jones for Blue Ventures.

At the community level, we’ve witnessed a dramatic increase in the use of contraception since Safidy was established in 2007, with an associated decline in fertility. We’re seeing smaller, healthier families who are able to invest more in each child’s education. Smaller families, of course, also mean fewer mouths to feed, helping to reduce fishing pressure on marine ecosystems and improve food security.

The end result of all of this is that communities are more able to live healthily and sustainably. They are able to choose freely the number and timing of their births, and ultimately are better able to fulfil their potential. It will come as no surprise that providing access to family planning services has become a vital component of Blue Ventures’ holistic approach to sustainable development.

Blue Ventures’ programme encompasses community-based marine conservation and fisheries management, support for alternative livelihoods, and reproductive health services. © Garth Cripps for Blue Ventures

Blue Ventures’ programme encompasses community-based marine conservation and fisheries management, support for alternative livelihoods, and reproductive health services. © Garth Cripps for Blue Ventures

Blue Ventures’ programme encompasses community-based marine conservation and fisheries management, support for alternative livelihoods, and reproductive health services. In doing so, it addresses ten of the 17 Global Goals. But more importantly, it recognises that these goals are interconnected, and cannot be achieved in isolation. Poverty cannot be eradicated (Goal 1) and food security will not be achieved (Goal 2) if these communities are not able to use their marine resources in a sustainable way (Goal 14). What we seeing in Madagascar is that central to this is the empowerment of women (Goal 5) and couples having the means to plan their families (Goals 3 and 5). We have come to believe that by implementing multisector programmes that address communities’ needs holistically, including providing access to voluntary family planning services, we become more effective at achieving all of our goals.

As a health intervention, I have always considered family planning as one of the most valuable, high-impact services I could provide as a doctor. Now that I also work in conservation and sustainable development, I believe this more strongly than ever.