Understanding adolescent fertility trends through collaboration and capacity building

Twenty-nine researchers from 18 African Health and Demographic Surveillance Systems (HDSS) sites gathered last month in Accra, Ghana for an adolescent fertility data analysis workshop. The workshop was organized by the INDEPTH Network, a global network of 49 HDSS field sites (38 of which are located in Africa), and a partner on the Evidence Project. The primary objective of the workshop was to enable comparative analyses of critical themes in adolescent fertility and contribute to a more nuanced understanding of emerging adolescent fertility levels and trends, through standardization of relevant data from across the sites. The workshop was also an opportunity to build HDSS sites’ capacity for reproductive health research and for research utilization.

The workshop was the first activity of the INDEPTH Fertility and Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) working group, launched at the INDEPTH Scientific Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in November 2015.  The Evidence Project provided funding and technical assistance for the workshop, particularly related to research utilization and stakeholder engagement.

Additional funding was provided by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) as part of the Swiss-African Research Cooperation initiative (SARECO), the French National Demographic Institute (INED) and the INDEPTH Network. Experts from the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium (UCL), the French Institute of Research (IRD) and the INDEPTH network Secretariat also contributed.

Until this workshop, research on fertility had been limited at most HDSS sites, with a few exceptions. Capitalizing on current interest in fertility and reproductive health, this workshop was a chance to expand the sites’ work and expertise on those topics using existing data. The Working Group also hopes that this initiative will lead to expanded data collection on reproductive health at the HDSS sites, through the introduction of key reproductive health and contraceptive use questions to the INDEPTH sites’ data collection. The organizers noted that the field of reproductive health issues is changing quickly and INDEPTH sites are well-placed to monitor and test SRH interventions and programs. To that end, it is critical to build the capacity of the sites to conduct reproductive health research by improving the range of data collected and refining their data management procedures and data analysis skills.

Over the course of 5 days, sites broke into teams to review data collection structures, standardize their fertility data, and begin to run comparative analyses across three themes:

  1. Overall fertility trends and the contribution of adolescent fertility;
  2. Educational opportunities for girls and adolescent fertility;
  3. Socioeconomic conditions and premarital fertility.

Returning to their sites after the workshop, participants are now completing data cleaning and redoing some analyses. The group hopes to tease out micro level fertility trends that may tell a more refined story than the current macro-level picture provides. The findings will be presented in collaboratively-developed, comparative manuscripts.

In addition to expanding the sites’ skills related to fertility research, the workshop was also an opportunity to build capacity in research utilization (RU), beyond the usual dissemination of results. Several of the sites expressed a desire for capacity building and assistance in RU, recognizing the critical role of RU strategies in effectively engaging policy makers early in the research process. The Evidence Project, with its extensive RU experience, will support the development of site-specific briefs and provide other RU assistance, as opportunities arise.

Global initiatives such as FP2020 and the SDGs and the accompanying attention to sexual and reproductive health make this an opportune moment to push for expanded research on those issues. The findings coming out of this workshop will contribute to a more nuanced and detailed understanding of fertility trends and help make the case for increased investment in reproductive health data collection and research, including reproductive health interventions in INDEPTH member HDSS sites.