More than 100 million married women living in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception, meaning that they are able to become pregnant but do not want to, and yet are not using either a traditional or modern method of contraception. According to “Unmet Need for Contraception in Developing Countries: Levels and Reasons for Not Using a Method,” a new report by the Guttmacher Institute, about 15% of married women and 7% of never-married women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception; however, that proportion varies widely by region, country and socioeconomic characteristics.

More than one-third of pregnancies in developing countries are unintended and two-thirds of those are to women who are not using any method of contraception. This new study identifies the populations with the greatest unmet need for contraceptive services in developing countries and examines why women with unmet need are not using a method. The authors found that young women and married women in rural areas are most likely to have unmet need and that women in Sub-Saharan Africa have a greater need than women in other regions. The reasons women do not use contraceptives most commonly include concerns about possible health and side effects and the belief that they are not at risk of getting pregnant. Few women with an unmet need indicate that they are unaware of family planning options. The situation is markedly different compared with 20 years ago, when many women with an unmet need were unfamiliar with family planning.

“Although we’ve seen progress in most regions of the world, the proportion of women with unmet need is greatest, and has declined the least, in Sub-Saharan Africa,” says lead study author Gilda Sedgh, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute. “Family planning programs have made significant strides in reducing unmet need around the world and educating women about contraception, but there is still a long way to go.”

The study authors recommend making available a range of contraceptive methods, providing counseling and education about the safety of those options, and improving contraceptive technologies. Such strategies will enable women and their partners to more easily find methods that match their needs and lifestyles. Investing resources in those regions, countries and population subgroups with the highest unmet need will ensure continued progress by family planning programs in reducing the unmet need for contraception and, subsequently, the number of women experiencing unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortion.

What is Unmet Need?

A woman has an unmet need for contraception if she is married, in a consensual union, or never-married and sexually active; is able to become pregnant; does not want to have a child in the next two years or wants to stop childbearing; and is not using any method of contraception, either modern or traditional.