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Meet the world's new family planning leaders

Rita Widiadana
Rita Widiadana

The Jakarta Post

New York | Wed, February 1, 2017 | 01:24 pm
Meet the world's new family planning leaders

New leaders: Winners take part in a leadership skills workshop taught by Henry Mosley of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health/File)

Tlaleng Mofokeng was a medical student intern when she was assigned to conduct community services at a number of under-resourced hospitals in Kwazulu-Natal province in South Africa.

“During my internship and community service, I found myself doing caesarean operations with only one nurse and I encountered so many rape victims and victims of abuse,” recalled Mofokeng, now a 33-yearold medical doctor and popular radio talk show host in Johannesburg.

Growing up in QwaQwa, she always knew she wanted to be a doctor.

“I realized we all needed to work harder to address the social injustices that lead to rape, violence and a lack of respect for bodily integrity,” added Mofokeng, who is also an avid sexual health advocate and vicechairperson of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition.

Isaac Ejakhegbe from Nigeria shared his heart-wrenching memory of his cousin, who was suspended from high school because of teenage pregnancy and later died from an unsafe abortion.

Today, he passionately draws from his experiences to advocate for sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR), family planning, safe abortion, as well as the youth’s critical role in access for girls and women to family planning services in Nigeria.

Young doctor Marvin Masalunga expressed how the rocketing number of teenage pregnancies and the unchanging numbers of maternal, infant and neonatal deaths had inspired him to promote family planning, especially among the poor in his hometown in Palawan province in the Philippines.

“The Philippines is largely a conservative country. Religion and cultural beliefs play a significant role in decision-making for many families. It is not uncommon to hear women refusing family planning methods because the Church is against it, or because their husbands do not approve of such methods,” explained Masalunga.

Rakibul Hasan is a journalist, blogger and author who writes about various critical SRHR topics in Bangladesh. With his Peacempire project, he constantly tries to break the taboo and create awareness against early and forced marriage and violence against girls and women.

“About 66 percent of girls get married at the age of 18 and 60 percent of them have their first babies at 19. Some 10 percent of young girls get pregnant when they are just 15 years old,” Hasan said.

(Read also: Sex, lies and tapegate: Raising awareness for women's rights)

Active advocate: Isaac Ejakhegbe is one of the winners from Nigeria. He was inspired to work on female health concerns by the death of his younger cousin.(Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health/File)

As for Islamic populations in general, if the majority of people in Bangladesh believed that God would feed upon newly born babies, why would people be concerned about the future of such babies? “The society thinks the concept of contraceptive use does not exist in Islamic practices. So anyone working on it will be labeled anti-Islamic and a Western propagandist,” he added.

Dedicated doctors, a journalist and a health advocate were among the 40 winners of 120 Under 40: The New Generation of Family Planning Leaders, a multi-year initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore with support from Bayer.

This year’s competition included nominees from Indonesia, including young doctors Anggraini Sari Astuti, Nisa Sri Wahyuni, Maryam Qonita, Fitri Sari, Dini Haryati, Loveria Sekarini, Muhammad Ami, Jaya Setiawan Gulo and Irfan Riswan.

Despite the fact that family planning programs have clear advantages for national and global interests, in the last ten years, family planning programs across the world have been slowing down.

Jose “Oying” Rimon II, director of the Gates Institute, said the winners have unique and powerful stories to tell. They are not only competent and well-versed in research and practice but, above all, they are passionate and determined.

(Read also: Common problems of the female reproductive system)

Winning cause: Patricia Douglas, a young medical doctor and avid girls' and women's health advocate, was awarded for her contribution to advancing reproductive health and family planning and girls' health issues in her home country of Guyana.(Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health/File)

“They believe strongly that family planning and reproductive health are fundamental rights for all people everywhere – especially the youth, who are too often left out of the decision-making process.”

This year’s winners also include researchers and founders of nonprofits who work all over the world — in clinics and universities, in offices, and in the field — to advance family planning and reproductive health.

The winners will continue to serve as advocates and activists, scientists and service providers, and journalists and teachers in their countries and on a global scale to improve the lives of women, men and all people.

“I have no doubt they will ensure that youth voices are heard more clearly and more often on important reproductive health issues around the world,” Oying said.

In Ethiopia, Minister of Health Kesetebirhan Admasu has championed the country’s highly successful Health Extension Network, which improves the quality and availability of primary health care services — especially family planning and reproductive health — through community-based health workers.

In India, Vithika Yadav is providing accessible, non-judgmental information on SRHR through the digital platform Love Matters India.

The 40 winners for 2016 were chosen through public online voting, with scores given by a jury of experts and leaders in family planning.

Marvin was excited. “It’s definitely overwhelming,” he said. “After all, I did not expect to be one of the winners of this international program. It’s exhilarating and joyous at the same time. This award means a lot to us. It is an affirmation that we are on the right track in terms of the activities that we have been doing for our constituents.”

Tlaleng shared her buoyant feeling. “I feel honored and excited to be part of this group of amazing individuals. To be chosen out of a large pool of hard-working individuals is really special,” she said.

“It means that we are absolutely correct in the unapologetic manner in which we demand reproductive health for all people who need it. The many girls and women who do not have access to modern contraceptive methods need the rest of us to do our part in advocating for comprehensive solutions,” she added.

With these winners driving it forward, Oying hopes the family planning field will continue the resurgence it has experienced in recent years. The energy and dedication of these young champions contributes significantly to that forward momentum.

“They are truly the next generation of leaders. Now they are not isolated anymore. They will connect with each other and together change the world for better. They will be positive disruptors to reckon with,” Oying said.

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The writer serves as a member of the International Jury for the 120 Under 40 initiative.

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