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Promoting family planning

Aung works with Marie Stopes Myanmar to make family planning a societal priority. “Lack of access to family planning has far-reaching impacts beyond health, affecting women’s and girls’ opportunities for education, employment, and overall development,” she says.
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Photo credit: Aye Thada Hla

While millions of people in Myanmar have been displaced by natural disasters and conflicts, the upheavals contribute to another less-reported challenge: just one-third of all women and one in two married women here, many of them impoverished and living in hard-to-reach areas, use any modern method of contraception.

Moe Moe Aung 06MPH is working to ensure that family planning—long considered a taboo topic in Myanmar—becomes a societal priority. As director of programs for Marie Stopes Myanmar, she plays an instrumental role in bringing contraception to hundreds of thousands of women. In 2018 alone, Marie Stopes Myanmar, a branch of Marie Stopes International, the London-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) known for providing contraception and safe abortions mostly in developing countries, provided family planning services to nearly 549,000 people in Myanmar. Efforts helped to prevent more than 200,000 unintended pregnancies.

“Lack of access to family planning resulting in unintended pregnancies has far-reaching impacts beyond health, affecting women’s and girls’ opportunities for education, employment, and overall development,” says Aung, who joined the organization in 2006. “Access to contraception really transforms their lives and fosters gender equality.

“Over time, political commitment and investment in family planning have improved, and the community’s knowledge of, attitude toward, and use of contraception have risen,” she adds. “There is more talk around women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, intensified efforts are still needed in order to reduce unmet need and promote equity.”

In a country where abortion is illegal—except to save the life of the woman—contraception is key for reducing maternal mortality. Unsafe abortions are the second-leading cause of maternal deaths in Myanmar, Aung says.

While the country was run by a military-led authoritarian government until 2015, Marie Stopes—one of just a handful of providers of contraceptives in the country—has a fairly good relationship with the leadership at different levels of the health ministry. Government responses toward NGOs can vary, requiring a tactful approach by public health workers.

“Some government officials and other stakeholders can be quite obstructive of the sensitive work that we do,” Aung says. “Perseverance, humility, and working with like-minded people are important, and being able to make progress despite the challenges is rewarding.”

It was while working in a public hospital—after earning a medical degree from the Institute of Medicine in the Myanmar capital of Yangon—that Aung saw a future in public health. At the hospital in Hpa-an City, she witnessed women dying during pregnancy, labor, and shortly after birth. She also saw children dying of malnutrition, diarrhea, and pneumonia, as well as people in the prime of their lives perishing from tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS.

“Many such deaths could have been averted through preventive and promotive health interventions and a community-oriented approach,” she says.

In 2004, she enrolled at Rollins as part of the William H. Foege Global Health Fellowship program, named after the physician and epidemiologist who led smallpox eradication. The fellowship program, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, helps mid-career public health professionals in developing countries advance their careers by developing connections with public health experts from government, the private sector, and academia in the United States and around the world.

It was during her time at Emory that Aung looked at the “big picture” in public health. She was inspired by the role that various government and nonprofit organizations play in tackling global challenges. Those organizations included the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Carter Center, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and CARE USA. She also was profoundly affected by her coursework.

“I still remember and apply the principles that were introduced to me during my reproductive health program management course: Do what you are deeply passionate about, do what you can be best in the world at, apply humility and professional will in leadership, and apply business principles in the social sector to move from a good to a great institution,” Aung says. —Andrew Faught

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