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More mouths but less to feed them

Nigerien birthrate compounds problems

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DOGON DAWA, Niger -- Amina Moussa has six children. Her husband's two other wives have another eight in total. Factor in the four adults, and this south-central Nigerien household has 18 mouths to feed.

By the standards of a developed nation, this is an immense number of people under one roof. But it's pretty much average for Niger, one of the world's least developed countries -- and home to the planet's highest birthrate.

The average woman in Niger has 7.5 children. For every 1,000 people in this African nation, there will be 50 live births this year, according to Nigerien estimates. Though offset somewhat by high child mortality, the Nigerien population is nonetheless growing at a rate of roughly 3.5 per cent per year.

The official population, based on a 2010 estimate, is 15.3 million. The actual population is likely closer to 16 million. The UN expects that figure to swell to 22 million by 2025.

This remarkable population growth is compounding Niger's many challenges, all factors in the food crisis looming over the next few months. Population growth means more land conflict between sedentary farmers and nomadic herders. It means more pressure on nutrient-poor soil already barely able to nurture existing crops and provide forage for goat, sheep and cattle herds.

The old strategy in Niger and other agricultural nations was for families to have as many kids as possible to help work the land. But even traditional agro-pastoralists understand this isn't working anymore.

"It's true when you have a lot of children, it's difficult," said Moussa, speaking in the Hausa language through an interpreter in the village of Dogon Dawa, east of the city of Maradi.

Moussa's youngest child, now 13 months, recently spent four weeks at a government medical clinic in a neighbouring village, receiving milk and vitamins. The child appeared to be suffering from malnutrition and has recovered.

Now Moussa said she and her husband are mulling something once unthinkable in a traditional Muslim society -- the use of birth control.

"In the past, we wouldn't accept or agree with the idea of family planning. But now we are considering it because it's difficult to feed our children," she said. "We have discussed it and we agreed."

The Nigerien government has mounted a countrywide campaign to convince citizens to have fewer children. But this in itself is challenging in a relatively conservative nation where sexual imagery is not part of the popular culture.

Billboards promoting condoms tend to be allegorical. "My hat is my companion," reads a roadside billboard promoting condom use.

Non-governmental organizations say a significant number of Muslim leaders in Niger support the family-planning message, though more conservative leaders are far less likely to buy in.

But there are cultural factors at play that are only loosely connected to religion. The education of girls and women, widely considered the most important factor in determining birthrates, faces serious logistical and cultural challenges.

Simply put, educated girls tend to marry older and have fewer children, anywhere in the world. In rural Niger, home to most of the population, girls are expected to marry at about 15 and are not as educated as boys.

At the mud-brick schoolhouse in Dogon Dawa, only 32 of the 113 kids enrolled in primary school are girls, according to a blackboard inscription. NGO workers say some parents don't see a point in spending money on schoolbooks for girls when daughters can help with crops and other chores.

Others may not send daughters to schools where there are no proper latrines, as the lack of privacy is less acceptable for girls than for boys.

A secondary-school education is even more problematic, as some parents fear girls could become pregnant while off at boarding school.

Young women also inherit less land when they marry. Lawali Abdou, a Dogon Dawa farmer with 10 children from two wives, said he gives his sons twice as much land as he gives his daughters.

The constant subdivision of land means the average Nigerien farm plot is down to 2.5 hectares, said Saidu Doulaye, a government agriculture counsellor. In North America, that's a healthy size for an urban surface parking lot.

In other words, more people are farming less land of dubious productivity in a country where environmental changes already have played havoc with traditional agricultural practices and rendered food security uncertain.

At the nation's current birthrate, a baby is born every 40 seconds.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2012 A8

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