You know where I get contraceptive pills? I get them in my mailbox. Every three months, I receive a large, white envelope that gives me the freedom to choose when and whether to have a child. I thought about this envelope when I was in the jungle in Peru, where many women live their entire lives with no access to contraceptives.
Latin America and the Caribbean has the second highest rate of adolescent pregnancies in the world. Nearly 40% of women become pregnant before the age of twenty, and 1 in 5 births are to adolescent women. If these women could obtain contraceptives as easily as I do, it would not only reduce the estimated 1.2 million unintended pregnancies that occur in the region each year, but also save women's lives. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for women ages 15-44 years old.
So, how do women living in the Peruvian jungle obtain contraceptives? I found out when I visited Stefanie Suclupe, a 24-year-old professional nurse who has one of the toughest jobs in the world. As a volunteer with INPPARES, our local partner in Peru, Stefanie brings basic health services—like contraceptives, pre-natal care, and gynecological consultations—to people living in villages that have no electricity, no potable water, and no cell phone signal. Her journeys can take several hours—or days—but she makes them to ensure that poor and rural women can take advantage of family planning.
"The jungle has the highest rates of teen pregnancies and death during childbirth in Peru," said Stefanie. "These are national problems that affect the most vulnerable people. It was a wake-up call for me."
Traveling to one of these villages requires taking several different types of transportation. After we took a one-hour flight from Lima, Stefanie and I drove for three hours through verdant mountains and over dusty, pothole-ridden roads, braving hairpin turns and heart-stopping cliffs to reach the small town of Barranquita. From there we took a boat to cross three stingray-infested rivers, hiked over hills, and trekked through sun-beaten papaya fields before finally reaching Grau.
"The first time I walked to Grau, I had to face some of my personal fears, like what I might encounter on the road, the depth of the rivers, and whether I would get lost," Stefanie told me. "But once I arrived in the community, they were so welcoming, and that was a huge motivation for me."
While Stefanie unpacked her bag of medical supplies, I chatted with a young woman named Mirca. She told me her first pregnancy was at the age of 13. She had just been married to an older man in the community.
When providing care to women like Mirca, Stefanie tactfully talks about family planning, protection from sexually transmitted infections, and gender-based violence. She provides women with information about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and where they can obtain contraceptives to decide when and whether to have children. These conversations help to ensure that every person Stefanie meets not only has access to the health services they want and need, but also understands their right to make their own choices about their lives.
"The work I do makes me feel really good," said Stefanie. "I can help people change their lives and have better health."
I left Peru in awe of and inspired by Stefanie's commitment to increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services in her country. Now, when that white envelope arrives in the mail, I think of Stefanie's courage and tenacity, and I recommit myself to doing what I can to help her bring health care to the poor and isolated Peruvians who need it the most.