The population of Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, is growing at an unsustainable rate, according to the authorities and civil society groups.
If current growth rates of 3.3 percent per year remain unchanged, by 2050 Niger’s population will have reached 50 million. The current population is 15.2 million - and even at this level there is widespread malnourishment.
It has been nearly 25 years since Niger identified population control as a priority in its fight against poverty, said senior Ministry of Social Development and Population official Barra Bahari. But convincing people to have fewer children by marrying later and using contraception is not an easy task.
“This is a humanitarian emergency. We have no future without birth control,” said Idé Djermakoyé, president of a local NGO involved in family planning, the Nigerien Organization for the Development of Human Potential (ONDPH). “The government cannot cope. The population is poor, the health system is weak and there is no land for farming. We are already unable to feed and educate our population.”
National statistics are grim. Nearly 60 percent of the population survives on less than a dollar a day. A woman dies every two hours while giving birth. Nearly one child in five dies before the age of five. Almost one in three does not attend primary school.
The economy would have to grow at a rate of 7 percent a year to meet people’s basic needs, according to Najim Mohammed, coordinator of the Permanent Secretariat of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, a government body. In 2009, growth was negative, he said. The government says average annual growth in the last decade has been just 3.1 percent.
A recent government study on the impact of population growth notes that by 2015, if the trend remains unchanged, thousands more classrooms, teachers, and health personnel will be required. In general, each active member of society will have to look after at least two inactive ones. And the already deficient food production will be even less adequate.
In the maternity ward of Diffa’s health centre, Mamane Fati is holding her newborn daughter, her ninth child. “The first born could not even stand when I had a second one,” she said. Her sister then told her about contraception. “Now, I have understood that we have to put some space between births. I try to leave three years between each of them.”
The fact that this is Fati’s ninth child is hardly exceptional. The average Nigerien woman gives birth seven times in her life, the highest number in the world.
What may be noteworthy is that Fati, now 38, was 21 when she had her first child. That is almost old in a country where half of all females have their first child at 15-16, according to a 2006 government demography and health survey.
By promoting education for all, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) hopes to reduce instances of early marriage. “Education could most often break the cycle of early marriage”, said UNFPA’s deputy in Niamey, Saidou Kabore. “Girls will not marry while studying. And then, the more a woman is educated, the fewer children she will generally have.”
By 2015, the country aims to reduce the proportion of early marriages from 60 to 40 percent and the number of children per women to five. Some 18 percent of its sexually active population should be using contraception by then.
Family planning and contraception are among the topics discussed with every woman giving birth in Diffa’s maternity unit. “We stress that it is important for their health and that of the child to space births,” explained the head of the maternity unit, Mariama Daouami.
In the last nine years, Daouami said, the contraception message seems to have had more resonance in the cities. “In the countryside, it is another story. Most often women say they will have to ask their husband. And then, there is the religious factor. They think that spacing birth is defying Islam.”
She added that when a man has several wives, wives will often compete to have the most children, because this will reflect on their status in the family and on their inheritance share.
Key targets: Men and religion
Organizations such as UNFPA have understood that without the sanction of men and religion, change is unlikely.
“We used to only target women, but we cannot promote family planning without involving men,” said UNFPA’s Kabore. “It is men who decide when it comes to contraception, or delivering at the health centre. This is related to the problem of women’s status in the society.”
In 2004, UNFPA started engaging men in family planning by opening a dozen “husbands’ schools” in central Niger. Married men were invited to meet twice a month to discuss reproductive health. Kabore said it led husbands to become more involved with health and family matters. This year, 136 such “schools” have been established.
Hassan Ardo Ido has 12 children under 21. He describes it as a heavy burden but also explains: “We think that if you have five children who can fetch wood, well, that will help the family.” This is one of the ideas that UNFPA is trying to fight against by stressing that children are expensive to raise, said Kabore. “It is believed to be a security net, but several examples show that it is an insecurity net.”
The fact that children have tended to die more frequently at a very young age may also explain the urge to have a large family. “People have to understand that it is no longer necessary to have five children to ensure two survive,” said Djermakoyé, from ONDPH. “Many more children live now that we have relatively better access to health care and vaccination.”
Working closely with traditional chiefs and religious associations has also become a priority. Islam is not against family planning, said Kabore. Citing Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, he noted: “There are Muslim countries where family planning has worked very well.”
Marabout Gabo Sabou preaches about family planning to his fellow marabouts. “The Koran says we cannot prevent births. We don’t contradict this, but we say that the size of the family needs to be on a par with resources. The Koran never said you should make children regardless of your ability to look after them.”
Even though his sermons are not always warmly received, he says his peers are now much more responsive than they were when he started two decades ago. “Now people listen and we can discuss. There was not even a discussion before, just a fight.”
“We are starting to see the impact of our work, but it is very slow,” said the Population Ministry’s Bahari, noting that the use of contraception has increased from 5 percent in 2006 to over 13 percent. “Contraception was a taboo subject when I started in 1990. This is no longer the case. Condoms are being shown on TV and people are not shocked.”
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