On World Population Day, One Incredible Organization Working Toward Access to Family Planning for All: WINGS Guatemala

As part of Population Connection’s Summer Speaker Series, on July 9th we were delighted to be joined by two members of WINGS Guatemala’s Executive Team, Drs. Rodrigo Barillas (Executive Director) and Michelle Dubon (Medical Director), to discuss their organization’s vital work, along with the ways it has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women’s International Network for Guatemalan Solutions (WINGS) is a non-profit organization that provides quality reproductive health education and services, primarily to indigenous Guatemalans. Since its founding in 2001, WINGS has reached 315,495 youth, women, and men with their sexual and reproductive health information and services. The organization estimates that it has prevented 286,625 unintended pregnancies, 1,614 infant deaths, and 103 maternal deaths.

A regular week for WINGS’ mobile unit teams starts on Monday, prepping and packing the vehicle with all the clinical supplies that will be needed for the scheduled clinic days that week. On Tuesday morning, the team of nurses, along with the driver, drive to their first day-long pop-up clinic. Once they arrive at their destination, sometimes after hours of navigating challenging roads, they provide education and LARCs (Long-Acting Reversible Contraception) to 10-20 women. They repeat this process, traveling to the next community each evening until returning to Antigua headquarters on Friday. The whole process begins again the next week!

The doctors’ presentation began with a video showing a day in the life of WINGS mobile clinicians. WINGS operates three mobile units that provide services Monday through Friday throughout the lower half of Guatemala, concentrating its work in the rural regions. Nearly all (92%) of WINGS patients live in rural areas. The mobile clinics that visit them every couple of weeks provide rural residents with information and services they wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain, including vasectomies, tubal ligations, IUD placements, and hormonal implant insertions.

After the video, Dr. Barillas explained the mission and drive of the organization: to serve underserved communities. The community most in need is the rural indigenous population, where one in three women does not have access to reproductive health services. Dr. Barillas highlighted that this group bears the brunt of inequality in accessing quality health services.

Expanding upon this point, Dr. Dubon described the important role of the staff when entering the communities and connecting people with resources. During staff training sessions, trainers emphasize the importance of providing quality services with honesty and compassion. It’s also vital for providers to respect the culture of their patients. To that end, WINGS focuses on hiring people with connections to the communities they serve. These practices make it easier for providers to debunk the myths and misconceptions surrounding reproductive health care and have productive conversations with patients about the benefits and side effects of contraceptive options.

Both speakers touched on the difficulties that have arisen due to COVID-19. Dr. Barillas focused on how the pandemic has impacted the country, specifically Guatemala’s overall health care system. Before the pandemic, Dr. Barillas emphasized that the country’s health system was already broken. Now, he says, it is decimated. The pandemic has exacerbated the overall lack of services.

Each pop-up clinic begins with an educational talk or charla. The WINGS nurse explains basic anatomy, pregnancy, and how contraception works so that each woman is able to choose the best contraceptive method for her. WINGS does not use coercive techniques to encourage women to choose specific methods over others. Rather, each individual has an opportunity to ask questions, change their minds, or even decide NOT to get a method. This is all part of WINGS’ rights-based, patient-centered approach.

Dr. Dubon described how the virus has required WINGS to change its methods of providing services, information, and education. For instance, the promotional team has adapted its strategy for reaching potential new patients. Instead of visiting door to door, they now connect with potential patients through WhatsApp and Facebook. She explained that these platforms have also worked well in their youth training program, which provides youth the opportunity to offer reproductive counseling to their peers.

Although the pandemic has limited the procedures performed by WINGS, the doctors say there has been a silver lining. The organization has implemented a new system of electronic medical records. Dr. Dubon said that with this update, they hope to provide laptops and tablets for staff to record patient information in the future. Incorporating more technology into their services, despite the technological challenges common in rural areas, has proved invaluable during these unprecedented times.

We are so proud to work with WINGS, supporting its work toward a world in which everyone has access to comprehensive, quality reproductive health care and education. In fact, we enjoy our partnership so much, last year, we asked Dr. Rodrigo Barillas to join our Board of Directors! (He said yes.) Here’s what Rodrigo has to say about joining our Board:

WINGS and Population Connection’s mission are so intertwined, so aligned, that it truly was the perfect match for me, and what I’m passionate about. Especially because I am coming from the Global South where so many individuals, especially adolescents and women, face so many barriers that prevent them from fulfilling their reproductive lives.

I hope and believe that my participation on the Board can help move the needle, even if slightly, in the direction of reproductive rights, and support the provision of contraceptive methods and sexual health/reproductive health (SHRH) education, so as to empower youth, women, and men to lead healthier lives and have healthier families.

Whatever we can do, all of us together, to prevent the millions of unintended pregnancies occurring worldwide, the better our world will be in its capacity to prevent environmental crisis and climate change, famine, water shortages, and poverty.

WINGS uses the LARCS First Methodology, whereby promoters and nurses explain available contraceptive methods in order of effectiveness. Women can see and feel the various methods and are able to choose the methods they feel would work best for them. In 2019, WINGS provided 3,729 LARCs, a 12% increase over 2018.

This World Population Day, we celebrate all of the organizations like WINGS around the world that are delivering reproductive health care in all settings, but especially in those that are rural and underserved. The number of women in the developing world with an unmet need for contraception is still woefully high, at 214 million, but we can only imagine how much higher it would be without your dedicated efforts.

So thank you. Thank you for empowering women and girls, for lifting up entire communities, and for making the world a better place for current and future generations by helping to slow population growth through the only acceptable means: safe and affordable family planning for anyone who wants it.

Watch the full presentation below!

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