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Karen Austrian

Karen Austrian
Position: Associate II
Organization: Population Council
Austrian specializes in reproductive & adolescent health. She develops, implements & evaluates programs that build girls' protective assets. She's the lead investigator of The Adolescent Girls Initiative: Kenya & Adolescent Girls Empowerment Program. – Ann Blanc, Vice President and Director, Poverty, Gender and Youth Program at Population Council
Describe your contributions to and achievements in family planning.

From the time that I was 22, I have been working on trying to understand the barriers that vulnerable adolescent girls face in being able to go through adolescence and become young women in a way that is safe, healthy and productive - and the role that family planning plays in that. From co-founding a center for adolescent girls in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, to now being the principal investigator of large-scale studies that will identify "what works" for adolescent girls, I have sought to understand and address the intersections between social, health and economic factors that girls face and design comprehensive, evidence-based solutions so that they adolescent girls can get the services they need and live their lives to their fullest potential.

What sparked your passion for family planning?

As a young woman running a girls center in Kibera, I saw first hand, among the girls that I worked with, what pregnancy meant in the life of an adolescent girl - the end of school, getting kicked out of her home, the end of her dreams. For most of these girls, abstinence isn't an option. Family planning is the way to enable adolescent girls to achieve their fullest potential.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your family planning efforts, and what have you done to overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges is girls not having access to health facilities that offer family planning. In one of my studies we developed and are evaluating a health voucher for adolescent girls that entitles girls to free family planning services a contracted public and private facilities. The voucher helps girls to feel empowered to go to the clinic, receive priority treatment and not face the financial constraints they would otherwise.

What is your (country/region/city)’s biggest challenge in family planning, and how can it be addressed?

There are so many myths around family planning and the negative effects that it can have, especially for adolescent girls. You can work with girls to understand how they get pregnant, how not to get pregnant, and even help them to access the methods, but being able to make the decision to go for a method, in the face of all the myths and stigma is hard. Work needs to be done at community, household and individual levels to reverse these psychological barriers to family planning.

What do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years?

I would like to use rigorous research to identify a complimentary set of interventions that help girls know their choices, access family planning methods, and build economic assets, and then work with communities and governments to expand the reach of those interventions.

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