Kantha's Story

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GLOBAL REPORT[image, unknown] Planning families

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Kantha's Story
'How many children shall we have ?' is one of the most important questions that any couple ever ask. The answer, though it may not be exact, is never arbitrary. Peter Adamson talks to Kantha de Silva, a midwife in Sri Lanka, about the very different decisions that can be taken within the same small community.
[image, unknown] World population will probably stabilise at 10.5 billion somewhere around the year 2110.
[image, unknown] This is two and a half times the present number.
But the final figure could be less.
[image, unknown] If more women had access to effective family planning methods.
[image, unknown] And if more families were rich enough not to need more children.

THE point of demographic transition lies somewhere along the beaten red-earth road which runs through the village Galkulawewa At the far end of the road, close to the two thousand-year-old man-made Lake or ‘tank’ which once irrigated thousands of acres of dry-zone rice, stands the house of Chandra de Silva, a clerk in the Ceylon Transport board. He and his wife Ranjini have three children. Earlier this year Ranjini wentto the clinic at Nebulawewa and had a tubectomy operation. At the other end of the village, down a bank from the level crossing gates which close twice a day for the train from Colombo to Anuradhapura, is the home and workyard of Sunil Gunawardene, carpenter to the village. He and his wife Sithie have eight children and they may have more.

In between these two homes, but standing a little way back from the road in a grove of trees, is the wooden-planked house of Kantha de Silva. She is one of the 4000 Public Health midwives who are responsible not only for delivering Sri Lanka’s babies but also for advising its parents on child care and family planning. One of the most familiar of village sights in her ample white uniform, Kantha de Silva has several times pedalled her way to the home of both the clerk and the carpenter. Why has her family planning advice been welcomed by the one and politely rejected by the other?

‘To see why,’ smiles Kantha, ‘you have to see the difference in all the other circumstances of their lives. The carpenter is self-employed and his income is not steady, It’s a pretty hand-to-mouth life. He has no income if he is sick and cannot work. And he has no pension when he gets old. So he feels he needs quite a lot of children for family security.’

‘He also reckons that the children didn’t cost him much extra when they were young. Children are only really expensive when you’re rich! But now that some of them are grown up, he thinks that a large family makes for a richer family because of all the work they all do in the business.’

In the carpenter’s timber-strewn yard, Sunil Gunawardene is slowly shaping a chair leg. Two of his older boys are glueing and cramping rungs in a chair back. Nearer the house, a younger daughter is plaiting raffia for the seats.

It is a scene which is played out every day all over the island — children treading rope from coconut fibre, driving ox-carts to market, pulling wooden trolleys laden with jack-fruit, selling buffalo curd at road-side stalls, running errands across the town, refuelling ‘disposable’ lighters on street corners, fetching wood and water, pounding rice, cleaning cowpie, and scattering chillies to wizen in the sun. And Sunil Gunawardene spoke for many as he looked at his children and simply said, ‘without them, we would be poorer still.’

His wife Sithie is not so sure. ‘I honestly think,’ says the midwife, ‘that Sithie wanted to stop after her fifth child. She probably knows better than anyone that it’ s not good for her own health or her children’s either— to have so many so close together. But it isn’t for her to say. Her husband makes the decisions on all important things for her, even how she should vote in the elections. They have not had the advantage of much education. And that’s the biggest difference you see between the couples who have smaller families and those who still want lots of children. It’s usually the more educated ones who go in for family planning.’

'The most familiar of village sights' - Kantha bikes her way toward smaller families. Photo: Peter Armstrong
'The most familiar of village sights' - Kantha bikes her way toward smaller families. Photo: Peter Armstrong

Less than a mile down the road. at the home of the clerk. Kantha has a different story to tell. Chandra de Silva earns $25 a month— little more than the carpenter. So he too is poor. Yet his job is secure and pensionable, with opportunities for promotion in time. Both he and his wife have secondary education and they take family decisions together. Inside their mud-walled, frond-roofed house Chandra takes out the family files, cheap plastic binders containing records of every expenditure from bus fares to after-school English lessons for the children. ‘We couldn’t afford these things if we had more children’ says Ranjini. ‘With a small family you can buy better food. And you can have clothes and shoes and books and make the home better.’

Ranjini has been sterilised. And she too speaks for millions of parents in Sri Lanka who are opting for family planning in the belief that the balance of their circumstances — of their own opportunities and their children’s needs — have tilted in favour of small families.

Somewhere between the home of the clerk and the home of the carpenter lies the point which the demographer James Kocher had in mind when he wrote that ‘the essential change which must take place before people in low-income countries want smaller families is that children must become economic liabilities rather than economic assets.’

But it is also the point where the degree of health care and education, economic security and female emancipation, have combined to tilt the balance of family life in favour of smaller families. Usually, it is a decision which is visibly related to circumstance. The story of world population growth, as told by parents, is that family planning is part of life planning. Those who by virtue of health, education, work and economic security have acquired the means, the opportunity and the confidence to plan the improvement of their own lives were usually planning the size of the size of their families as well. Those who lacked such advantages, those who had had to accommodate themselves to a poverty which seemed to them inevitable and unalterable, were less likely to be planning anything other than the daily struggle to survive — a struggle in which a large family was sometimes seen as an asset.

Back at her own home again, Kantha points down towards the level crossing gates:

‘You see the girl in the white dress and red tie? That’s Kanthi, the carpenter’s eldest daughter. She’s fifteen and still at school. When she eventually gets married she will not have more than two children. I can more or less promise you that. She has told me her plans. And she will not accept the kind of life her mother has had.’

So the change is happening in the carpenter’s family too, as it will eventually happen to every family which has the chance to plan its life.

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New Internationalist issue 107 magazine cover This article is from the January 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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