As those of you who know me personally are aware, I just got back from a semester abroad in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a former French colony in West Africa.
In the days leading up to my departure in August, I funneled all my excitement and nervous energy into packing. What should I bring? How long to my skirts have to be? How much bug spray do I need?
About to step into what seemed like a totally different world, I had no idea what I would really need, or if I was bringing the right stuff. And in the frenzy of the transition, of course all of the students on my program forgot something pretty important (for me, it was an umbrella, which would have been super useful during the 2 remaining months of the rainy season).
Luckily, there was something that I knew I couldn’t forget: emergency contraception.
This would never have occurred to me on my own, but I’m lucky enough to go to a school with a fantastic on campus group, the Advocates of Survivors of Sexual Assault who presented at the study abroad orientation to remind us that access to sexual health services can be different abroad, and abortion or EC might not be legal or available. I also had a wonderful feminist internship coordinator who joked that I shouldn’t just bring one, but a whole suitcase full, and be the EC-fairy for the whole city.
I definitely wasn’t planning on being sexually active in Senegal, but it’s good to be prepared for anything, and as my internship coordinator had pointed out, you never know when a friend might need it.
Thankfully, EC is available over the counter in pharmacies in the US, though it’s still fairly expensive (50 bucks at CVS, where I got it) so I only brought one, tucked into the side pocket of my backpack.
Arriving in Senegal was exciting and overwhelming, and throughout the 3-day orientation period before we were sent off to our homestays, we all spent a lot of time sitting in our hotel rooms, chatting, getting to know each other, and generally being like “WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?!”
In these getting-to-know-you interactions, whenever it was remotely relevant, I tried to mention to the other young women that I had Plan B and that if they ever needed it they should let me know. Not gonna lie, it was super awkward. Talking about sexual health is hard, especially when you’ve just met someone.
But I did figure out that another student on the program had done just what I did; though she had a boyfriend back home, she had brought EC just in case she or a friend ended up needing it.
I didn’t end up needing Plan B at all while I was there, and had totally forgotten that it was sitting in my bag.
Then one morning, I got a text from a friend, saying that one of her friends who wanted to remain anonymous needed Plan B, and if I still had it. So I passed it off to her at a café, incredibly happy to be of help.
A few weeks later, another young woman on the program needed EC, and though I was out, through the grapevine, she got in touch with the other student who had brought it, who passed it off to me, then I passed it off to a friend of mine, who passed it off to her friend. Again, I was happy to help (though much more indirectly this time around).
There are a ton of different ways that contraception can fail (condom breaking, condom falling off, forgetting to take your pill on time…) and I know from experience that when that happens, it can be stressful and upsetting, which is why so glad that we had been able to form a network of support for each other to quickly and confidentially get our peers in need access to EC.
After that point I worried though. There were about 50 young women on this program, but as far as I knew, zero Plan Bs left. We still had almost two full months left before we went home. What if someone else on the program needed EC before then?
The only way this problem can be solved is if more women (and even men!) bring Plan B with them abroad, which means that study abroad offices and programs, student groups, and individuals need to encourage students going abroad to be prepared, and not leave their reproductive health and their future up to chance.