In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Family Planning

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Reproduction, Geopolitics, and the Global Population Movement
  • African Motherhood in Historical Context
  • Cultural Meanings of Fertility and Fecundity
  • Colonialism, Race, the State, and Maternity
  • Contraception and Child Spacing
  • Population and Demography
  • Abortion

African Studies Family Planning
Emily Callaci
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0194


Family planning, as defined by contemporary institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), refers to the range of techniques through which a couple decides the number of children to have, if any, and how to plan or schedule a woman’s pregnancies. American and European women’s reproductive health advocates—most famously the American activist Margaret Sanger—coined the phrase “family planning” in the 1930s to bring together the concerns of multiple constituencies, including Malthusians who feared the effects of population growth, and advocates of women’s reproductive freedom and health. As a global movement, “family planning” consists of networks of institutions, funds, and the dissemination of new kinds of contraceptive technology. The modern family planning movement, which links spatially broad demographic goals with women’s reproductive lives, emerged in Africa in the colonial era through the efforts of a range of actors, including missionaries, European colonial administrators, and medical professionals. Many of the early family planning clinics in Africa were voluntary dues-paying organizations. By the late 1960s, many family planning clinics were incorporated into a global network of IPPF affiliate branches and African government health systems, with support from international donor organizations, including the Pathfinder Fund, the Population Council, and USAID. Yet family planning in Africa is not simply the wholesale importation of a concept envisioned by Margaret Sanger in 1930s Brooklyn into African contexts. For one thing, as the historian Megan Vaughan has argued, “the family” is not a static or uniform concept, but has changed over time and across cultural and historical contexts, and as such, “family planning” does not unfold in a uniform way across the globe. Moreover, while international development organizations define family planning as having two goals—spacing and timing pregnancies, and limiting the number of children in a family—many Africans value the former and not the latter. As the anthropologist Caroline Bledsoe has demonstrated, many African women use biomedical contraception with the goal of having larger, rather than smaller, families. Understanding the history and meaning of “family planning” in Africa requires an awareness of a broader cultural, geographical, and historical context. We might ask certain questions in this regard: How have African communities conceptualized identities in relation to fertility and childbirth, and how do these intellectual traditions affect how African women use, or respond to, modern family planning initiatives? How has the history of colonial occupation shaped African responses to family planning initiatives? Why, in much of Africa, has the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy not resulted in families desiring fewer children, as it has in other parts of the world? A history of the modern family planning movement in Africa must include both modern global histories of Africa’s relationship to the world through colonialism and capitalism, and longue durée histories of motherhood, health, and fertility in Africa.


While few journals are specifically dedicated to family planning in Africa—the African Journal of Reproductive Health being the main exception—there are a number of journals devoted to matters of family planning, population, and contraception that publish articles about Africa. Chief among these are Studies in Family Planning, Population and Development Review, Contraception, and International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Social Science & Medicine, a journal of social scientific scholarship on medicine, also regularly publishes articles about family planning. Moreover, a number of African studies journals publish articles that have to do with women’s issues, health, family planning, and related topics. The Journal of African History and International Journal of African Historical Studies are devoted to historical scholarship, while Africa and Africa Today emphasize more contemporary topics. There are numerous other African studies journals; listed here are just some of the more prominent examples.

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