by Marceline White
"The main obstacle to family planning is the men," says Marisa Rojas, a
community health organizer in Juarez, Mexico. "We need to get rid of the machismo of
I met Rojas on a trip to Juarez last summer. I wanted to get a first-hand look at the
family-planning programs that I lobby to increase funding for in Washington, D.C. She
lives in a simple brown-brick home made from the ground around her; the sun beats down
relentlessly and the wind stirs the dust that envelops the dry landscape. Armed with
notebooks, a variety of contraceptives and considerable conviction, Rojas is constantly on
the move. She tracks clients' histories of family-planning use and supervises 23 community
Throughout Mexico, population growth has made it difficult for many poor families to
adequately feed, clothe, educate and care for their offspring. A growing population has
also exacerbated biodiversity loss, deforestation, and air and water pollution as people
use whatever resources are available to meet their short-term economic needs.
Rojas works for the Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development
Associations (FEMAP). In the past 25 years, this non-profit organization has trained more
than 8,000 volunteer community workers across the country, and it has helped nearly 1
million women gain access to family-planning services.
Thanks to family-planning programs like FEMAP, the number of children per family has
fallen from six in 1960 to three in 1998. FEMAP also addresses economic and educational
concerns through small loans and literacy programs. The mere existence of contraception is
not enough to stabilize population growth. Education is crucial: In general, the more
education a woman has, the fewer children she will choose to have. And a healthier economy
can point to a healthy family size: As couples gain access to more income, they often
choose to have smaller families so that they can devote more resources to fewer children.
In her work, Rojas focuses as much on literacy and economics as on family planning.
Rojas herself is an example of the tandem relationship between empowerment and education.
"Fourteen years ago my life was going from the house to the church and back again.
Now I will finish my high school education in November. After that I will go on to junior
college so that I can become a social worker."
But even with such tangible gains, there are still problems. Rojas isn't joking when
she points to male attitudes as a primary obstacle. She tells me the story of a woman who,
after 10 children, persuaded her husband to let her be sterilized. "At first he
resisted, but now I think he sees the benefits of this operation."
In one Mayan community, a health promoter told me, "Lots of people come asking for
contraceptives, but often the women don't want their husbands to know. They want an
injectable contraceptive because it is easy and the husband won't find out."
The Sierra Club's work advocating for increased funds for international family planning
has helped earmark hundreds of millions of dollars for programs like FEMAP, which receives
$800,000 annually from the U.S. Agency for International Develop3ment. Population
pressures are an environmental problem we can solve because creating an environment where
women are able to plan their families is effective and stabilizes population growth. This
in turn helps prevent biodiversity loss, global warming, and air and water pollution. But
we have to work as hard at home as FEMAP promoters do in Mexico to mobilize our
legislators to secure much-needed funding for international family planning assistance.
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