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How the 'Avon' Model Is Empowering Women to 'Inspire Change' in Madagascar

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© Blue Ventures

The first International Women's Day (IWD), aimed at both celebrating the extraordinary social, political and economic achievements of women, and directing a spotlight on areas requiring further action, was observed in 1911 at a time when family planning services were extremely limited.

As we approach this year's IWD on March 8th, reproductive rights are no less relevant, with 222 million women who would like to plan their pregnancies lacking access to contraceptives. IWD's ambition this year to inspire change is a timely platform for small projects that are aiming to empower women in these communities to help meet this need.

Safidy means "the freedom to choose" in Malagasy, and is the name and ethos of a reproductive health programme run by a British charity, Blue Ventures, in Madagascar. The project enables women in the remote Velondriake area to choose the number and spacing of their births.

In the global north, in the 21st century, women's ability to manage their fertility feels like a natural and obvious human right. But in this isolated region of south west Madagascar, before the Sadify programme began, women had to walk up to the length of a marathon to reach the nearest family planning clinic.

Blue Ventures was already working on marine conservation projects in the region when local women approached us, asking if we could support them to get easier access to reproductive health services. With strong community relations and infrastructure already in place, we were ideally positioned to respond by developing a scheme with the women.

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© Brian Jones for Blue Ventures

Through the resulting Sadify programme, local women are trained as 'Avon-like' entrepreneurs to offer a range of affordable contraceptive options in their villages. This sustainable social enterprise model allows them to generate a small income for their otherwise voluntary work. In addition to providing voluntary family planning services, they teach semi-nomadic fishing families along Madagascar's south west coast how to improve their health.

Since the project began in 2007, the proportion of women in Velondriake using contraceptives has increased more than five-fold. In 2007 just 10 per cent of women used contraception, compared to 55 per cent in 2013.

But this is not just about reproductive health. Blue Ventures is a marine conservation organisation, whose original focus in the region was to support coastal communities to manage their fisheries and marine resources more sustainably.

Integrating voluntary family planning services into our environmental work has generated positive spin-offs, improving food security and empowering women to engage with these conservation initiatives, as they gain access to the information and means to make their own reproductive health choices.

Our vision is to see this integrated model replicated across Madagascar and beyond, so that we can reach the most isolated with vital health services, and support the long-term sustainability of their conservation efforts.

We also hope that this project will inspire a fundamental shift in the way that people think about environmental and social challenges; not as distinct but interlinked. We want these issues to be tackled in the way that people and ecosystems actually experience them - as a whole.

Blue Ventures' work has been recognised by Sir David Attenborough as "a model for everyone working to conserve the natural life-support systems of our troubled planet". To find out please more visit our website.

The two video clips that appear in this article are taken from the short film, "The Freedom To Choose", produced by Ecomentaries and released today by Blue Ventures. You can watch the full-length version here.

The Safidy programme is supported by the Madagascar Ministry of Health, Marie Stopes Madagascar, Population Services International, the MacArthur Foundation and UNFPA Madagascar.