Niger tries, belatedly, to curb population growth

“A child if I want and when I want,” reads the sign at the family-health centre in Niamey where dozens of Niger women come every morning to get free contraceptives.

“I was taking the pill without my husband’s knowledge,” recounted Zahratou Amadou, a 38-year-old mother of 10. “When he found out he repudiated me.”

Male domination and Islamic proselytising, coupled with poverty and a lack of education, mean that the vast majority of women in this southern Sahara country do not use any form of contraception.

“Plan your children because you, and not your husbands, are the ones who risk losing your lives,” Zada Bawa, a midwife at the centre, never tires of telling those who come for consultations.

She also touches on the need for poor countries to control births.

For Niger, faced with the knowledge that its rate of economic growth cannot keep pace with its rate of population growth, in February adopted a controversial strategy aimed at inversing its demographic growth curve, the highest in the world at 3,3%.

In Niger, on average, a woman gives birth to 7,1 children. Only 5% of women use any form of contraception, largely because men forbid their wives to use it.

The result is that Niger’s population jumped from three million in 1980 to 13-million in 2006 and, unless the current trend is inversed, it is expected to hit 56-million in 2050, according to official projections.

“There are so many children in some parts of town that we’ve nicknamed them ‘China Town’ or ‘Ghetto’,” said Abdou Issa, a Niamey taxi driver.

A demographer and economist from the population ministry, Bassirou Garba, explained that the government’s plan is to bring the number of children per woman down to five by 2015.

It intends to achieve this by promoting family planning and aims to have 11% of women using some form of contraception by 2015.

One major obstacle to the promotion of family planning is that 59% of all marriages in Niger involve girls under the age of 15, Garba said.

Another of the government’s aims is to bring this percentage down to 11%.

Together these measures should enable the government to get demographic growth down to 2,2% annually, according to official projections.

To succeed, the government will have to overcome serious resistance from Islamic clerics opposed to contraception and from traditionalists who favour early marriage, United Nations sources say.

With World Bank and UN funding, Niger has started an awareness campaign to sensitise the population to the dangers of the demographic time bomb.

Teams made up of traditional chiefs, religious leaders, demographers, economists and leaders of women’s groups are criss-crossing the country to talk to villagers and persuade them of the need to change both their views and their behaviour.

Radio and television advertisements reinforce the same message.

All that is very new in this country where virtually the entire population is Muslim and where radical Islamic clerics oppose the government’s message on contraception, a practice they see as the “Satanic work of the West”.

To combat poverty in Niger, there is no point in pouring billions of dollars into so-called development projects unless measures are first taken to ensure economic growth can keep pace with population growth, one UN expert said. – AFP

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