New Internationalist

Your mother should know

November 1980

Stop at two’ is a family planning slogan the experts are still trying to translate into the language of the poor. And Kenya, more than any Third World country, must now get to grips with its development phrase book. Kenya’s population is the first in recorded history to break the four per cent growth rate. Unchecked this would mean a quadrupled population within 30 years. With economic growth falling below five per cent, and income distribution already grossly skewed, it can only spell increasing poverty for the majority.

The problem goes hand in hand with a striking success. ‘The principal factor,’ points out Dr Norman Myers in the British magazine New Scientist, ‘has not been that Kenyans have started to breed like rabbits. Rather they are no longer dying like flies.’ Infant mortality has been cut from 200 per 1,000 in 1960 to under 80 today, and the overall death­rate is down to 1.4 per cent - an achievement matched by only four other African states. But Kenya is the only country to combine a low death rate with a high birth rate: the potent baby-boom formula.

Dr Myers quotes some seemingly remarkable findings from the Kenya Fertility Survey. Among women with six living children, only 25 per cent want no more. Even amongst those with eight surviving children, less than half want to call a halt. And while nine out of 10 Kenyan women are reported to know about modem contraception, fewer than one in 10 regularly use it. All this after 13 years of government commitment to reduced birth rate, and amid a proliferation of family planning programmes sponsored by the UN, the World Bank and a host of other agencies.

But having reported the problem (along with other factors that may combine to cripple Kenya’s development - increasing pressure on land, falling food production and inadequate growth of health and education facilities), Dr Myers offers little explanation.

Black Africa’s ‘apparent compulsion’ for high fertility rates is traced back to the slave trade which at its peak snatched 15 million ‘vigorous and youthful’ Africans for transportation to the US. Africa’s strong ‘pro-fertility traditions’ are offered as a response to this ‘demographic haemorrhage’. And with the problem identified as cultural, education becomes the solution. Secondary schooling, argues Dr Myers, ‘seems to be a prerequisite for a change in attitude toward family size’.

So ignorant mothers are still getting the blame for Kenya’s population problem - even though there is mounting evidence to challenge this. The critics see family planning as one-track development. Why, they ask, should women control their fertility when they have no control over the rest of their lives? High birth-rates may well be a rational response to widespread disease, meagre cultivation and scarce employment opportunities. And while health programmes lower mortality rates they don’t guarantee a place in school or a job in town. In this development ‘lottery’, six children still mean six chances of success.

Kenya’s four per cent growth rate may be, as Dr Myers argues, ‘a severe setback to the development aspirations of what is already the most impoverished region on earth’. But don’t blame the mothers.

This column was published in the November 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 093

New Internationalist Magazine issue 093
Issue 093

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