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Because Hamiltonians Make Change: Mary Phillips ’11


Her path to a job with a nonprofit in Ethiopia began with Hamilton and a prestigious Watson Fellowship, with several career stops en route. Mary Phillips ’11 is a technical advisor for a program that expands access to contraception for married teens.

Adolescents 360, which also operates in Tanzania and Nigeria, is a project led by Population Services International, and until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Phillips lived and worked in Ethiopia. She’s temporarily working from the U.S., missing the field work but pushing ahead with the project. Its success lies in the way it reaches married 15- to 19-year-old girls and women.

“We developed this program called Smart Start, which uses financial planning as an entry point to the discussion about family planning,” Phillips explains.

Adolescents 360 staff found that the girls and young women and their husbands were interested in contraceptives when they learned the long-term financial benefits to the family of delaying pregnancy. The traditional approach to contraceptive counseling, Phillips says, stresses the grave health consequences of pregnancies for adolescent mothers.

“We went through a human-centered design process and really found that adolescents aren’t that worried about their health; it’s just not the primary concern. They’re worried about money and feeding their family and what their future is going to look like,” says Phillips, who started working in Ethiopia in 2018 as Smart Start was beginning to roll out. 

Two years later, it had reached 65,000 girls and young women with the financial-planning approach, and, as a result, 32,000 took up a modern method of contraception. Buoyed by that success, Adolescent 360 launched a campaign to convince the Ethiopian government to take on Smart Start to expand it countrywide.

Phillips led the team that analyzed how to adjust the program to make it feasible, and at the end of 2019, the government agreed. Population Services International received funding to provide technical assistance to the Ministry of Health, and the government has committed over the next five years to reach one million girls and young women with financial planning counseling, with a projected half million taking up contraception.

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It was a tremendous win for Phillips and her colleagues, who are still hard at the task. Now working remotely, they are looking at ways to streamline Smart Start fieldwork to make it easier for the government to implement.

“We’ve been working together to develop a plan for how to do remote fieldwork,  essentially — how do we try to interview girls and get their feedback on things over the phone? And it’s a very experimental, let’s-see-if-we-can attitude. Nobody really knows what’s going to work, but you know, the team is like, ‘all right, sure, let’s try it. Why not?’” Phillips says.

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