In African cities, encouraging community discussions may reduce myths, increase contraceptive use

January 13, 2016

In Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal, the most common family planning myths consistently include, “people who use contraceptives end up with health problems” and “contraceptives are dangerous to women’s health.”

Dr. Ilene Speizer

Dr. Ilene Speizer

Ilene Speizer, PhD, research professor, and Chinelo Okigbo, doctoral student, are both researchers with the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. They also are co-authors on a new study that examines associations between belief in negative family planning myths and use of modern contraceptives on both the individual and community levels in urban areas of three African countries.

As part of the Measurement, Learning & Evaluation Project, the researchers collected baseline data from representative samples of women aged 15–49 and men aged 15–59 living in cities where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is currently operating the Urban Reproductive Health Initiative to increase modern contraceptive use.

On average, women in Nigeria and Kenya believed 2.7 and 4.6 out of eight common myths, respectively, and women in Senegal believed 2.6 out of seven. On an individual level, the stronger a woman’s belief in these myths, the less likely she was to use modern forms of contraception.

In Nigeria, however, the researchers found unexpected associations between community-level credence in the myths and increased contraceptive use among women. No community-level association was found in either Kenya or Senegal.

Investigating further, the research team found that women in the Nigerian cities were part of particularly homogenous ethnic and religious populations. These women were more likely to have closely knit social networks within which misconceptions about family planning could be spread, and were more likely to report believing those myths even while using a modern method. Thus, the positive association between community-level belief in family planning myths and modern contraceptive use highlights the fact that, although these women are from a culture with strong belief in the myths, their need for contraception superseded any misconceptions about side effects.

As the unmet need for family planning is high throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the barrier to contraceptive use such myths about family planning need to be addressed. Education programs including mass media campaigns, community outreach and one-on-one counseling can help dispel common misconceptions about modern, highly effective forms of birth control such as oral contraceptives and injectables.

The study authors highlight the need for further research to better address the role myths about family planning play in contraceptive uptake across sub-Saharan Africa. They suggest focus group discussions to help clarify the pathways through which community social norms influence individual behavior, as well as in-depth interviews with key informants to provide insights into the mechanisms through which myths are developed and how they can be dispelled.

“It is unfortunate that in many contexts myths and rumors travel faster than truths,” Speizer commented. “Public health programs need to consider strategies to promote the benefits of contraception to the health and well-being of women and their families and identify champions of family planning who can spread these more positive messages.”

The full study, which appears in Volume 41 of International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, is available online.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or


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