The Role of Women and Healthy Families: Global Perspectives of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
Poverty, population, and contraception are complex issues closely related to the rights of women around the world. The fall edition of WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association, examines how these issues impact poorer communities in the developing world. To mark the magazine's launch, the Environmental Change and Security Program and Population Action International (PAI) hosted a panel discussion on December 7, 2006, moderated by National Public Radio's Brenda Wilson. Speakers included former Peace Corps volunteers whose service inspired them to work on behalf of women's reproductive health. "This issue of WorldView documents the manifold impacts that family planning has, and does so through compelling stories of individuals…[and] stories about how family planning can change lives," said Scott Radloff, director of the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The Peace Corps Experience
For many in the Peace Corps diaspora, their careers sprang from their experiences as volunteers. In USAID's health offices, nearly half of the foreign service officers are former volunteers, noted Radloff: "We are indebted to the Peace Corps…. It has been very useful in shaping the experience and commitment of our staff." Similarly, Terri Bartlett, vice president for public policy and strategies initiative at PAI, said, "As I travel the world, I am constantly struck by the number of former Peace Corps volunteers who are active in development."
Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, attributes this migration to the unique experience of Peace Corps volunteers like him, who "live as our friends and our colleagues live. We learn their languages. And most importantly, we learn about how they look at the world." He also noted that the same desire that draws people to the Peace Corps—to create a positive impact in the world—continues to pull them toward development work. The drive, he said, can be summed up by a quote from Greek philosopher Archimedes: "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."
Family Planning Focus
One of the levers used by the Peace Corps is family planning. "What is unique about family planning is that it is the solution, or at least part of the solution, to a variety of problems facing the developing world today," said Radloff. NPR's Wilson agreed, stating that she had witnessed the negative effect of rapid population growth on developing economies, global health, and natural resources. Family planning efforts have been successful in many contexts, but several speakers noted shortcoming they saw during their time in the Corps.
When Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, was assigned to India in the late 1960s, family planning was treated as a product to be sold: men were paid to receive vasectomies; women were paid to have IUDs, yet many would have the implant promptly removed by a village midwife. "This was obviously not a good health outcome," he said. "It seems to me that we really don't understand family planning as services. This is certainly a challenge that we must overcome." In addition, the concept of family planning did not resonate within the region where he lived, partly because the phrase did not easily translate into Hindi. A local man told Pope that the he could "plan" for a harvest or in business, but he did not understand the idea of planning in relation to his family.
For Bill Harper, chief of staff to U.S. Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN), the importance of family planning services became clear during his assignments in Malawi and Guatemala, where inadequate health care led to "real-life consequences and outcomes," such as birth complications and mishandled abortions.
In Niger, where Carolyn Gibb Vogel of PAI served, family planning services were offered through the clinic at which she worked, but the services were not used. Niger, she said, was too conservative a society for a family planning clinic to be appropriate or acceptable: "There has been great progress in family planning, but there are some countries where this is not the case, including Niger…. I was in a very sleepy clinic."
Yet family planning efforts have succeeded elsewhere. Jamaica Corker, associate program manager for West and Central Africa at Population Services International, saw tangible progress as a health volunteer in Guinea. During her assignment, villagers who were once apprehensive about the local clinic increasingly took advantage of its services. Although the clinic frequently ran out of supplies like birth control pills and condoms, the increased interest in family planning was a sign of progress. But greater success in situations like this, she said, requires meeting demand: "You can [educate people], you can inform people, but you have to offer, in tandem, reasonable services and the products to keep the ball rolling."
Robert Blair, a staff member on the House of Representatives' Appropriations Committee, was as an agriculture volunteer in the Central African Republic. While his daily work did not involve family planning, he would often spend the evenings socializing with the men of the village. As they shared jugs of palm wine, lively banter often gave way to more serious topics like HIV/AIDS, contraception, and ways in which the men could make their wives and daughters' lives better.
During her assignment in Morocco, Elisha Dunn-Georgiou, international policy associate at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, was expecting the local Muslim population to be close-minded about sex. But she was off-base: "One of the great things about Peace Corps is that it is two years of destroying your assumptions about the world." While her conversations about family planning never involved both men and women, she had open and frank discussions with single-sex groups on issues covering the full spectrum of sex and relationships.
Many of the speakers noted that family planning means more than birth control pills and condoms—it paves the way for future generations. "Family planning is the foundation of healthy woman and healthy families," said Harper. Dunn-Georgiou asserted that family planning should be approached holistically: "We really need to take into account literacy and economics and resources and social justice. Those all go into making a successful family planning program. And you really can't do one without all of them together."
There are many challenges in promoting and expanding family planning services and programs, including sheer distance. "How do you transform public policy from 10,000 miles away?" asked Harper. But Lynn Foden, program technical director of the African Wildlife Foundation, said that we can overcome some of the hurdles by understanding that the world is not as different as it may seem: "The things that women and families are interested in in developing countries are the same things that our families are interested in [in the United States]. You want your kids to grow up, have opportunities, and be healthy." Recognizing these shared goals and values, she said, can help move the discussion and debate forward.
Drafted by Alison Williams and Craig Marcus.