Development Roast

Are married women really the only ones who need family planning?

LisbethVogensenBy: Lisbeth Vogensen*

One common indicator used in many family planning and sexual and reproductive health research documents is that of unmet need for contraception/family planning (see Figure 1). In most cases, this unmet need indicator is followed by this description: percentage of women aged 15 to 49 who are married or in a union (1). Running into this indicator not only makes the feminist inside me stand up in protest, it also lets me know that the information presented on unmet need is incomplete. This unmet need data that only includes women who are married (2) is then generalized to be representative of the entire country/region/world.

Figure 1: Percentage of women with an unmet need for family planning (any method) among those aged 15 to 49 who are married or in a union: most recent data available


Source: World Contraceptive Patterns 2013 (United Nations, 2013), available from

Why particularly married women? What about the remaining approximately 53% of the fertile female population who are not married and do not consider themselves in a union? Obviously, they are not supposed to have sex at all.

This equals a tremendous misrepresentation of the true unmet need in a population. One could argue that married women have a lesser need for family planning since it is assumed they want/have to bear children and would only require family planning methods to space out pregnancies or to "close the factory". One could, as well, argue that unmarried women and adolescents have a greater need for family planning methods since they are more likely to want to prevent pregnancy.

So, after reading this, would you believe that Bolivia has a 20% unmet need for family planning (3)?


* Lisbeth Vogensen is a Public Health researcher at the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.


(1) World Bank example: 1

(2) "Married women" includes those in a union.

(3) Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE). Encuesta nacional de demografía y salud 2008 (ENDSA). Ministerio de Salud y Deportes. 2009. Accessed at 2



  2. 2010%5D.pdf