Ramping Up Production: Providing Contraception to Millions More Girls and Women in Africa and Asia

By: Katja Iversen, CEO, Women Deliver

Last week I saw a good example of what it means to “walk the talk” - taking commitments made in big meetings and turning them into action that will potentially benefit millions of girls and women around the world. I participated in the unveiling of a new state-of-the-art production plant in Oss, Netherlands, that will provide 10 million contraceptive implants annually destined for use in developing countries in Asia and Africa.

The healthcare company MSD (known as Merck & Co. Inc. within the United States) opened the new production line at the Oss Plant, joined by staff, the Mayor of Oss, ambassadors, academics, representatives from the Dutch government, the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, FP2020, the Population Council, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As the world counts down until the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, and the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals currently in the making, the broad turnout showcased the importance of and the need for strong, committed and diverse partnerships if we want to improve the world for girls and women. The need for partnership and action was also strongly emphasized by many of the speakers in a panel discussion that took place the same day.

In his introductory remarks, John Skibiak, director of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, pointed out that the goal to reach 120 million women and girls by 2020 will require more than “doing more of the same.” “It requires business as unusual and strategic thinking by all parties involved. We need to work together to provide choice, quality and affordable supplies. No institution or sector can hope to achieve these goals alone.”

Koen Kruytbosch, Executive Director, Institutional Business Africa at Merck/MSD, also acknowledged the importance of partnerships if we want affordable contraceptives. “Affordability is key to make progress sustainable.” As an example of Merck/MSD’s commitment to collaboration, Kruytbosch pointed to an agreement announced between Merck/MSD and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce the price for the contraceptive implant by almost 50 percent.

Other companies, as well as many national governments, are also stepping up their investments in family planning programs. This makes perfect sense, according to Jeroen Roodenburg, Special Ambassador for Business and International Collaboration within the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After all, improved access to family planning can contribute to economic empowerment for women, which in turn can drive economic growth. “Studies indicate that 90 percent of women’s earnings are reinvested in their families and communities, compared to 40 percent for men.”

All panelists agreed that good progress had been made since the 2012 London Summit and the launch of FP2020 – a global partnership to support the rights of girls and women to decide whether, when and how many children they want to have.

“The summit brought family planning back to the forefront of development,” said FP2020 Director Beth Schlachter. She pointed to “deeper financial commitments across the spectrum,” from both donor governments and the governments of target countries. John Townsend, Vice President and Director Reproductive Health at the Population Council echoed Schlacter’s claim that progress has been made and added that “more contraceptives are being supplied, but we also see that more people are interested in the supplies.” He cautiously graded the work done to date as an 8 on a scale of 1-10.

While the panel fully agreed that there is a great momentum, all recognized the challenge ahead to maintain it and overcome remaining barriers. Kruytbosch pointed to the need to better manage supply chains to avoid stock-outs and refine forecasting models to help manufacturers meet demand. Several felt that there is still a lot of untapped potential in public-private partnerships. Roodenburg highlighted the need to “do more in fragile states,” while Schlachter emphasized that the goal to reach 120 million additional users of modern contraceptive methods by 2020 in the world's poorest countries doesn’t tell the whole story. “We have to think about markets, equity, providing a range of choices. If we’re just focusing on the numbers but we’re not meeting the rights of women and girls, we’re losing an important opportunity.”

My intervention within the panel focused on the most crucial challenges and greatest opportunities – to involve women and girls themselves and to focus on the needs of young people. 222 million women today have an unmet need for family planning and half of the world’s population is under 30. Their needs, their choices, and their opportunities – including access to modern contraceptives - will define the world as we know it. It is vital that we take those women and young people seriously, talk to them, listen to them, and learn from them – in the policy and program making, as well as in the development of products. 

During the visit to Oss, I was especially moved by the plant’s staff, who voiced how proud they are to be able to make a difference in the lives of millions of women across the globe.

Contraception is a vital part of the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women and we must continue to collaborate to make sure they are given the tools and opportunities to live the full lives they want and deserve.



Facts and figures from Merck:

  • Merck invested more than €70 million ($88 million) in the new facilities, which enable the company to double its production capacity of the Implanon NXT implant to over 10 million applicators per year and meet the expected demand from women in low and middle income countries.
  • Merck supports the ambitious, but we believe achievable, goal set out by the global reproductive health community in 2012 of ensuring that voluntary lifesaving family planning information, services and products reach an additional 120 million women and girls in the world's poorest countries by 2020. We also support the call to improve equitable access to 13 overlooked commodities, including contraceptive implants, by the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children's Health.
  • 90,000 lives can be saved every year with long-acting, reversible contraceptives (because complications in pregnancy and childbirth can be prevented).

Photo credit: Frank Zwinkels


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