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Family Planning Programs Laid Ground for AIDS Fight

By Sally Acharya

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Sullivan Robinson (Photo: Jeff Watts)

  • African countries that addressed population growth — even unsuccessfully — were often in a better position to counter the spread of HIV/AIDS than countries that had not worked on population issues.
  • Countries with longtime policies on family planning — often pursued at the behest of outside donors — seem to have found an unexpected benefit to what might otherwise be seen as ineffective programs.

That’s part of what Rachel Sullivan Robinson is finding as she studies countries as different as Senegal and Malawi.

Namibia, Botswana, and Nigeria have also been on her research radar as she explores the politics of population, reproductive health, and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the 1980s and 1990s, about two-thirds of African countries adopted policies to limit population growth, says the School of International Service professor. While there was no decline in birth rates, countries adopting the policies received more funding from USAID, and “even if they weren’t hugely effective, they provided the opportunity and space for talking about really tough issues,” she notes.

Terms such as “reproductive rights” became part of the dialogue. NGOs were in place and had found ways to discuss gender, sexuality, and other subjects that aren’t always easy to address openly.

Robinson is now examining the relationship between those first population interventions and what countries were able to do in addressing HIV/AIDS.

Her current research indicates that countries that placed a greater emphasis on trying to slow population growth — for instance, with family planning campaigns — were better equipped to address HIV when it appeared.

Countries that had built clinics, made relationships with outside donors, and figured out how to implement behavior change were prepared to address other issues as they arose.

Robinson’s interest in Africa dates to a middle-school trip that she didn’t get to join. Just hearing about the possibility of students like herself going to Africa — not as an exotic fantasy, but as a real possibility — captured her imagination, even though she wasn’t able to participate.

“I think something about the idea helped make it into a place that wasn’t exotic and unreachable, but some place people could really go,” she says.

Later, as a demographer Robinson was intrigued by the population dynamics of African countries.

Specializing in the sociology of gender, culture, and health, Sullivan has conducted a number of studies on population policy in sub-Saharan Africa and published articles concerning nutrition, women’s labor, and sexuality. She teaches in the division of Comparative and Regional Studies at SIS.