This story from the Economist is about Niger – the largest country in West Africa (by size) – and the country with the highest fertility rate in the world (7.6 children per woman). Although Niger does not have a large population by world standards (17 million) this number is set to more than triple between 2014 and 2050. That wouldn’t be such a problem were it not for the fact that the country cannot feed itself even now and even when there are no droughts. Unfortunately, there are consistently droughts and the harvest regularly fails:
“Niger is, by the reckoning of the UN’s Human Development Index, the poorest place on earth…An estimated 2.5m people out of a total of 17m have no secure source of food. When harvests fail, which they do almost annually, that number shoots up. In 2012, when the worst of the recent food crises ravaged the Sahel region, almost a quarter of Niger’s population was said to be going hungry…”
The reality for poor, undernourished children is heartbreaking. The Economist introduces Haowa, a mother of eight children (her last pregnancy resulted in triplets) who cannot feed her children:
“Now, when her babies scream for food she often finds herself helpless. ‘If they cry and I have nothing to give them, then I must let them cry,’ she says, cradling two infants who bear the hallmarks of malnutrition. Their hair is yellowing, their bellies are distended and their expressions glazed. They lack the energy to shake the flies from their faces.”
I can’t imagine the pain that that mother must go through – knowing that her children are hungry and unable to do anything about it. My heart breaks every time my son bangs his head and starts crying – but at least then I know that I can comfort or distract him and he will be off and running again in a couple of minutes. I have never known what it is like not to be able to feed my family. Not only does that make me extremely fortunate but it means that the suffering that mothers like Haowa go through is incomprehensible. The poor, poor woman.
So why do Niger’s population continue to have so many children when its current population cannot be fed? The Economist points to a number of factors:
“Poverty, ignorance and poor access to contraception are contributing factors, as are cultural issues like competition between wives. Men in Niger tend to be polygamous, and local doctors note that their spouses often try to prove their value by outdoing each other in child births.”
The UN is seeking to change this:
“At present the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is the only importer of contraceptives, flying in millions of dollars’ worth this year. It runs a ‘school for husbands’ which teaches men, who traditionally tended to obstruct women seeking birth control, about family planning. The schools hope to dispel wild rumours about contraception. One woman living outside of Zinder, the country’s second-biggest city, used to believe the pill would cause haemorrhages or make her unborn child anaemic. ‘I was scared for the first two months,’ she says.”
While it is good that Nigeriens are being informed so that they can make choices about their families, it appears as if Nigeriens may not want to change their current family structures:
“And the appetite for change among the population is limited. Only about a quarter of women express any desire to space out their births, let alone reduce their number.”
If that’s the case, if three-quarters of Nigerien women want to have eight children despite the misery being suffered by Haowa mentioned above, then what on earth can the UN do about it? Set up schools to re-educate women about how 2.1 would be a much better number of children to have? If this mindset largely comes about through the polygamous practises, then what should the UN do? Ban it? Do we then get back to the argument about which is more paternalistic: should we ban an apparently mysognistic practice even though women might want to be part of it? (See for example the hijab debate…) What do you, dear readers, think about this all?
PS Before we look down at the ignorance of Nigeriens about contraceptives and the pill, what do we in the west generally know about it? What do girls (I use the term deliberately) know when they are put onto the pill by their doctors? What are they told about the long term effects? The risks etc? Do we even know the longterm effects of it? Or are there none? As a final aside, I smile to think about how we are so keen to have “organic” food and to make sure no additives/chemicals are in our food and yet we take (or ensure our girlfriends/wives take) a pill every day that is pure hormone and tricks a woman’s body into thinking she is pregnant. But I’m sure there is a difference there somewhere.