Fertility education just as important as maths and science
It is not rational to be serious about poverty alleviation, income inequality, redistribution, lack of capacity, capacity building and all those concepts usually thrown into the same basket, without first addressing the issue of fertility and poverty.
Even our two priority areas, health and education, are strained when unwanted children become the responsibility of the state. This always happens when their parents fail to take care of them. When there is an ingrained dependence on charity, it becomes so much easier for delinquent parents to simply transfer their problems to the government. This drains resources, and places an additional future burden on individuals who have nothing to do with the unwanted children.
A fertility strategy can be called planned parenthood, family planning, families by choice, spaced children, or whatever label you care to attach to it but fertility planning must be the first issue to be tackled by any leader who claims to promote a pro-poor agenda. Rampant fertility remains the number one cause of poverty in Africa.
A household with more children that it can reasonably support, enters the so-called poverty cycle, remaining trapped in these conditions, not only for one generations, but often for decades. Families with too many children fail to get their children educated properly. Often, where families are crowded together and hygiene is lacking, chronically ill children add to the health burden while they tend to fall behind in school. Sometimes, even at a relatively young age, these children are already lagging behind their age group, and display all the early symptoms of a retarded lifestyle.
To try and remedy this situation by early childhood development programmes, is usually too late when the child reaches school-going age.
But why are African leaders so sensitive to tell voters bluntly, they have too many children. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that the “ideal” family size, is a very subjective matter. Enough children for one particular household may just be far too few for another.
From an analytical point of view, we also try to sidestep some of the sensitivity by using nice words like family planning and fertility, or by giving it a pseudo-demographic flavour and a semblance of respectability, when we repeat bland or meaningless statistics. For instance, the international norm that every women needs to have 2.4 children to keep the population number stable, is a senseless observation in a growing, third world country. Knowing the theory may make all the sense in the world for a statistician, but you try and explain to an illiterate, abandoned young mother, that she must only have two and a half children in her entire life, and see what a perplexed stare you get back. The complexity of fertility is based in the fact that it is both a social and an economic factor. It is rather obsolete to consider the future demographic impact on economic growth, without a keen awareness of the social dynamics when it comes to family planning. It is also easy for people who are further advanced on the development scale, to keep advising upcoming families to have less children, when those that have been born are already too many for the meagre resources of an impoverished family. It is stark reality that poverty, and fertility goes hand in hand.One of the major obstacles in sensible family planning, is the inability of any argument or strategy to change the lives of both the parents and the children that are stuck in the poverty cycle. These child inevitably face a life of deprivation and impairment. Then the focus must be on health and educational support. Fertility only matters to those, as yet unborn children, whose future parents are still in a position to make a rational decision whether to have more or to stop. I have stated earlier that the education of girls is the best contraceptive there is. This thought was not plucked from this air. A similar sentiment I have found expressed in several reports on fertility, most notably by UNESCO, based on research and development work over many decades. The problem is, these reports are produced by individuals who typically rank amongst the top five percent of their populations. It is not as if the researcher is out of touch with reality at grassroots level, it is only that the packaging in which the information is dressed, only speaks to other intellectuals, and not to those most affected by families they can not support. Fertility is a grassroots issue. Social workers who engage communities at this level know the frustration of dealing with a family, destitute in all material aspects, with one child in the belly, one suckling, one on the hip, one on the back, and another five scrounging in the dust.