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Blame the coffee

Vigorously bucking the global trend is the small Pacific island of Timor Leste. At 7.8 children per woman, Asia’s newest nation has the world’s highest fertility rate. Some locals blame the island’s coffee, which they liken to viagra. But there are other reasons why the Timorese are having babies like there’s no tomorrow.

Up until 1999 the country was brutally occupied by Indonesia, which forced family planning upon the people. Some 102,000 Timorese lost their lives due to conflict during occupation and many went into exile, leaving behind the poorest and least educated.

During the course of his recent research, demographer Udoy Saikia of Flinders University, Adelaide, found that men on the island wanted numerous children and would not hear of family planning. ‘There is,’ says Saikia, ‘something of a psychology that they have to replace people who died.’ One man told him: ‘Look at that hill. That hill used to be full before. It is empty now.’

Most of the population is Catholic and society remains highly patriarchal. Decisions about desirable family size are left to men; 80 per cent of women don’t use contraception.

‘In the fields I asked women how many children they wanted to have. “My mother said I must have many because I am the only girl in my family,” came one reply.’  Another was told by her grandparents that she must have nine children. This is in a country where a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line.+

Saikia relates: ‘I asked one of the men how many children he had. “Three,” he said. How many would he like to have? “Seven,” the man replied. Joking, I asked: why not 10? He answered: “I’m not employed. I have no income How can you think about 10?”’

+ The countries with the fastest growing populations are often the poorest. Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Niger, Somalia and Uganda, as well as Timor Leste, are projected to increase their populations by 150 per cent between 2010 and 2050.

Source: ‘The world’s highest fertility in Asia’s newest nation: an investigation into reproductive behaviour of women in Timor-Leste’, by Udoy Saikia, Gouranga Dasvarma, Tanya Wells Brown, IUSSP, 2009.

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