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Family planning, reproductive health, and population census: How are they linked?

Have you ever wondered how, if at all, census and survey activities relate to family planning and reproductive health? They do, quite a bit. Census data helps countries make more informed decisions when distributing resources to their citizens. For family planning and reproductive health services, the accuracy of population census data cannot be emphasized enough. We spoke to members of the United States (U.S.) Census Bureau’s International Program, who shared how their program is helping countries around the world build capacity in census and survey activities.

As countries strive to address the reproductive health needs of their citizens, understanding the distribution of key populations is important as it helps the authorities allocate resources appropriately and equitably. Mitali Sen, Chief of Technical Assistance and Capacity Building in the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Program, stresses that countries need to collect data reporting the number of women living between the ages of 15 and 49—generally the age where women are most likely to have children. “This,” she says, “will help governments know how and where to prioritize their family planning resources.”

The U.S. Census Bureau is providing technical assistance in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, Pakistan and Namibia to build capacity in population census and survey activities. In Malawi, for instance, the Census Bureau helped the nation become one of the first countries to complete a census in record time, processing and releasing the data within three months from the date of census. For the first time in its history, Malawi conducted an electronic census through the enumerators [the people who collect census data] using tablets, which is a huge technological shift from the previous system of using paper-based enumeration. It then becomes easy to run checks on such data.

While governments may know the number of people infected by malaria in a certain place, they may not necessarily know how many people are living in that same area. That is where population census data help. The census is often the only data source with the full age/sex structure of the country down to the lowest levels of geography, including the village level. Those numbers are important as model inputs for a range of health prevention and treatment programs. “Census [data] are the only data set that goes down to the lowest level of geography, which is essential for measuring health indicators and the impact of health programs. Therefore, we are in Africa in such a big way,” says Sen.

Even though the U.S. Census Bureau may have a huge impact on the population census in a particular country, Sen notes that it does not impose rules on what methods should be adopted or how countries should use the data they collect. “It is their data and they are in control,” she stated. “We are only there to help and show them international standards and we respect their decisions and privacy of their data. Thus far, that has been our single most important secret to success.”

Staff from the U.S. Census Bureau and Jordan’s Department of Statistics (DOS) worked together to conduct Jordan’s first digital census.
Staff from the U.S. Census Bureau and Jordan’s Department of Statistics (DOS) worked together to conduct Jordan’s first digital census.

The COVID-19 pandemic left a huge gap in the capacity building efforts of the U.S. Census Bureau in most low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). With more restrictions on travel and face-to-face meetings, Sen says the U.S. Census Bureau has had to adjust to new strategies of building capacity for census data in LMICs. Unfortunately, this change has come with its own challenges, especially in regard to time differences and technological challenges. “We have a time lag, so when we start working in the morning, our counterparts in Africa are nearing the end of their day, so we get maybe two hours in common. Where we would actually go and train them for two weeks and eight hours every day, we are getting two hours. That means if we have to do two weeks of training, it takes us four to eight weeks to do the same training. That also assumes that the [IT] infrastructure is working seamlessly, which it is [often] not,” said Sen.

Despite these challenges, Sen shared that there have been many lessons learned in population census work. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau has created the Tool for Assessing Pilot Electronic Census (TAPEC). The tool is equipped with the knowledge of different experts in the areas of national census. This, Sen says, was triggered by the fact that the team had an assistance activity where they had to observe a pilot census in Zambia and Namibia. “The exercise required us to be physically present. What we decided was, since we can’t be present, we should create a tool with all our knowledge inside that tool that then the national census bodies could have the tool, fill the questions therein and the tool would automatically produce results,” said Sen. “The beauty of remote support like creating this tool,” she said, “is the opportunity to draw all the expertise of the entire Census Bureau into one platform.” The tool will soon be piloted in Zambia.

Read more about the U.S. Census Bureau’s work: Data is key for robust evidence-based decision making

Lilian Kaivilu

Founder & Editor, Impacthub Media

Lilian is an award-winning multimedia journalist with over 10 years of experience in Health and Development Communication. Lilian is the founder and editor at Impacthub Media, a solutions journalism media platform amplifying positive stories of changemakers in Africa. She has worked as a reporter for local and international media and as a communications consultant for United Nations and the WorldBank. Lilian is currently pursuing a Master of Arts Degree in Development Communication at the University of Nairobi. She is a Linguistics, Media and Communications graduate from Moi University Kenya; a Journalism graduate from the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication; and has completed other short courses including Civic Leadership, Data Journalism, Business Journalism, Health Reporting, and Financial Reporting (at Strathmore Business School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, among others). She is the Vice President for the Africa Media Network on Health (AMNH), which is a network of health journalists from Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, and Malawi. Lilian is a Fellow of Mandela Washington, Bloomberg Media Initiative Africa, Safaricom Business Journalism, HIV Research Media, and Reuters Malaria Reporting.