Nepal’s fertility rate is going down even though contraceptive use has not increased
Sita Yonjan, 21, has a two-year-old daughter, and recently stopped using contraceptives even though she is not planning to have another child. She says she doesn’t need her birth control implant anymore because her husband went away to work in Qatar two months ago.
Yonjan visited a health post in Rayale village of Kavre to remove the birth control implant that she had inserted last year. The tiny device prevents births for five years, and does not need to be removed even when users abstain from intercourse. But many Nepali men want their wives to stop using contraceptives when they leave for overseas work.
"My husband thinks I could sleep with anyone if I use contraceptives in his absence," Yonjan frankly admits.
An estimated four million Nepali men of reproductive age work abroad, and their wives back home generally see no need for contraceptive implants, preferring to use short-term methods like condoms, pills and injectables when their husbands come home on leave. Like Yonjan, those using IUDs and implants remove them as soon as their husbands go away again.
Demographers say this explains the riddle about why Nepal's fertility rate has been going down despite contraceptive prevalence rate remaining low.
When Nepal conducted its first-ever nationwide health survey in 1996, only 26% women were using modern contraceptives. Within ten years, it had nearly doubled to 44%, but has leveled off since. The contraceptive prevalence rate actually declined to 43% in 2016, when the last National Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) was conducted. Even so, the fertility rate that measures the average number of children per couple has been going down -- from 4.6 in 1996 to 3.1 in 2006 and 2.3 in 2016 (see graphs, overleaf).
Demographers were initially puzzled by the drop in the fertility rate despite contraceptive use rate flatlining. But an analysis in 2013 suggested a correlation between male outmigration and contraceptive use. Another analysis is now underway, which will probably confirm the impact out-migration of men may be having on contraceptive use and fertility rate.
"If we consider only women who are married and living with husbands, we find a high contraceptive prevalence rate," explains Sharad Pathak, a demographer at the government’s Family Health Division. "This rate is low only because lots of women generally do not need contraceptives when their husbands are away."
However, experts warn that Nepal’s declining fertility rate may not mean that population growth will reach replacement level -- one in every four married women still have an unmet need for family planning. A third of young married women aged 15-19 do not use contraceptives, making them more vulnerable to unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortion.
Kristine Blokhus at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says Nepali women are aware of the benefits of having fewer babies, but face barriers in accessing contraceptives: "Health facilities often run out of contraceptive stocks, and there are not enough trained health workers to provide long-term contraceptives like implants and IUD."
A 2016 UNFPA assessment showed most health posts provide only condoms, pills and injectables because of the lack of trained staff. Only one third of the facilities provide all five types of modern contraceptives including implants and IUDS. In most villages, women have to choose between oral pills or Depo-Provera, which they cannot use if there are side effects. Male or female sterilisation is available occasionally, and most women complain their husbands do not want to use condoms.
With rising female literacy, the number of women opting for traditional family planning like withdrawal and the rhythm method instead of modern contraceptives is also going up. In 1996, only 3% of married women used such natural methods, now it is 10%. However, the NDHS 2016 showed that 62% women using the rhythm method to avoid pregnancy did not have an accurate knowledge about the ovulation cycle.
Nepal’s target is to increase its contraceptive prevalence rate to 52% by 2020, but it may not meet that goal because of male migration, the preference for natural methods, and family planning programs being scaled back due to a drop in U.S. funding after the gag rule under President Trump. The United States has traditionally been the main supporter of family planning projects in Nepal, through organisations like Marie Stopes International that provide abortion services.
Beth Schlachter, Director of Family Planning 2020, who recently visited Kathmandu to take stock of Nepal's progress, says: "The US gag rule might affect Nepal's family planning programs if organisations delivering safe abortion services here do not find other resources to supply contraceptives."
Since Nepal is poised to become an 'aging' society by 2030 and an 'aged one' by 2050, there is an even greater need to scale up family planning. For the country to reduce its dependency ratio and reap the demographic dividend, many more women must have easier access to a much wider range of contraceptives.
The mix matters
When Nepal launched its first population control campaign in the late 1960s, its population was only 13 million, it was growing at 3% per year because the fertility rate was nearly 6 children per couple. The only contraceptive choice women had then was to get their partners to use condoms. Most men did not like using them, and women did not have any control over reproductive health. The pill could have given women freedom to limit or space births, but they were scared of its side effects.
Later, injectables like Depo-Provera and IUDs were introduced and today the government provides five types of contraceptives for free, and conducts health camps offering permanent family planning methods like male as well female sterilisation. But many other contraceptives like emergency pills and female condoms are available only in private clinics, and most rural women cannot use them even if they want to.
Beth Schlachter, Director of Family Planning 2020, says Nepal needs to provide a much wider mix of contraceptives in order to protect women from unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions and maternal deaths: "What a 15-year-old girl needs might be different from what a 24-year-old mother of two children needs," she says. "If we try to address all of them with just one or two methods, we will not be very successful."
Marie Stopes International is preparing a pilot program to test the acceptability of a new type of Depo-Provera called Sayana Press which can be injected at home and would suit women who do not like to visit health posts every three months for their Depo-Provera.