In line with nationwide efforts to graduate Laos from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2020, Laos strategically held its First National Conference on Family Planning at the beginning of this month.
Themed, “Investing in Family Planning for Economic Prosperity”, the Ministry of Health initiated the conference that gathered more than 200 delegates, which included officials from key government ministries, provincial governors, vice governors, health officials and members from both civil and private sectors.
Supported by the UNFPA, the May 3-4 conference was a milestone in its own right, assembling key representatives who focused and discussed family planning goals for the nation, in context to economic and social growth.
Laos’ deputy Minister of Health, Dr. Phouthone Muongpak, stated in his keynote address, “This is our vision for the future.”
In recent years, Laos has seen tremendous progress in regards to maternal mortality and access to contraception, however, death rates are still critically high on a global scale.
There are still 206 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, a rate beyond those in developed nations.
With Laos ranking one of 69 priority countries identified by the Family Planning 2020 initiative, officials have vowed to support women and their right to decide when and how many children they choose to bear.
FP2020’s executive director, Beth Schlachter stated, “We believe … that access to contraception is a fundamental human right and has important impacts on gender equality, and access to rights for women and girls.”
Family planning is critical to Laos in order to evolve a skilled workforce that can sustain the country long-term and to repress escalating pressures on the health system.
Dr. Kikeo Chanthboury, Laos’ Vice Minister of Planning and Investment explained, “Increasing our government’s investment in family planning commodities, including contraception, will be cost-effective on so many fronts. Spending $1 on contraceptives can reduce the cost of pregnancy related care by $7, and eventually help save millions of dollars in direct healthcare costs averted.”
Though the Lao government has pledged to prioritize family planning, with several development agencies on board to offer support, the conference also provided a platform for those who are on the front lines – provincial governors and health workers – to voice their concerns.
The issue of access to contraception and the demand for additional trained health workers and midwives was paramount, for some.
For others, whose provinces are home to ethnic groups living in remote areas, culturally specific information and local language literature and dissemination methods were essential.
With the support of UNFPA, the government is preparing to implement new measures and has drafted a proposal that outlines how much will be required to assist Laos on graduating from LDC status. The proposal asses an estimated $15 million USD is needed, to be utilized over the span of four years across 18 different provinces.
Funding will be used towards promoting and providing information on long-acting reversible contraception, increasing the number of midwives able to provide such contraception, improving capacity at health centers and campaigns targeting young people.
“I think we really made history here,” UNFPA representative, Frederika Meijer stated. Adding, “Before, family planning was mainly seen as simply birth control, limiting the amount of people, and the governors were very concerned they wouldn’t have enough working population. But here, there has been a huge mind shift. They see now that family planning is about saving lives, working on quality of life, and having an influence on economic prosperity and social development.”