By: Aiste Dackauskaite, Women Deliver 100 Young Leader from Lithuania
This blog is part of a series, edited by Women Deliver, in partnership with Impatient Optimists, on youth perspectives to celebrate World Contraception Day. Share your thoughts in comments and join the conversation at #WCD2012. For more stories and to get involved further visit No Controversy.
The benefits of contraception for young people seem self-evident – it enables them to protect their health, control their life, and plan their future. However, UN research shows that Lithuania has one of the lowest levels of contraceptive use in Europe. Why aren’t people, especially young people, using contraception in Lithuania?
The reasons are twofold. Firstly, young people face barriers to accessing contraception. Secondly, there are several negative perceptions and myths around hormonal contraception (most commonly, the birth control pill) that dominate the conversation about contraception, and often have a negative impact on contraception use.
In Lithuania, hormonal contraception is only available every month to young women and adolescent girls with a prescription. Even though a consultation with a health professional about contraception methods is always recommended, a visit to the doctor often becomes one of the main barriers. Young women, especially adolescent girls, are reluctant to visit a doctor fearing condemnation, lack of confidentiality, and privacy. Additional barriers are created for girls under 16 who are required to provide parental consent if they want to see a doctor. Although statistics show that only a small percentage of adolescent girls start their sexual life younger than 16, parental consent makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get contraception for those who do.
Yet young men face fewer barriers, if any, in accessing contraception. Condoms are widely available with no age restriction.
One barrier that is common for both young men and women is the high price of contraception. Young people, especially adolescents, who do not work and are still dependant on their parents, can hardly afford to pay for modern contraception. If these barriers were removed, young people would have greater access to contraception.
Creating a positive attitude towards contraception will also help to increase contraceptive use among young people. In Lithuania, abstinence is promoted and the sexual activities of young people are ignored and criticized. Many believe that access to information about contraception encourages young people to have sex. When this attitude dominates among decision-makers, teachers, and parents it is very difficult to offer comprehensive, evidence-based sexuality education in schools and quality family planning services for adolescents. Since young people do not receive information about contraception in school and few get the information from health specialists, many young people rely on the information they receive from media, internet and friends. Unfortunately, these sources of information are not always reliable and often contain myths.
Most myths are about hormonal contraception – including that contraception use causes weight gain and body hair growth, causes cancer and infertility, and is generally “bad for women”. Many women believe they need to take breaks every 2-3 years “to let the body recover.” There are also myths about condoms, including claims that HIV and STIs cells are so small that they can easily slip through the walls of the condom. This is clearly false.
The most alarming issue is that authoritative persons and institutions (e.g. doctors, church) reinforce these myths and give contradicting opinions. When you hear one doctor praising contraception and its benefits and the other warning about the dangers, at the very least you get confused. The worst case scenario is that you choose not to use contraception at all, and if you are curious you check additional sources of information.
In order to remove the barriers that prevent access to contraception and to increase its use, a comprehensive approach is required. First of all, sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people must become a political priority. Advocacy work by young people and NGOs is essential in keeping these issues high on the political agenda. Secondly, it is critical to ensure provision of evidence-based sexuality education in schools and establishment of health centers that specifically cater to the needs of young people. Political support makes it easier to achieve these goals. Finally, awareness-raising activities need to be implemented to change the perception of contraception.
In people’s minds access to contraception and its use should be positioned as young people’s right, as a way to empower young people and to give them tools to control their life and future.
Aiste Dackauskaite is an advocacy project coordinator at the Lithuanian Family Planning and Sexual Health Association. She focuses on advocacy for sexuality education, youth friendly health services and access to contraception. Aiste Dackauskaite holds Bachelor's degree in Economics and Master's degree in Development Studies.