demographic transition in kenya, signs of hope

Kenyan women, on average, still have a staggering 4.6 children in their lifetime, down from 4.9 in 2003. One Mr. Omwenga – a public health administrator – says that part of the problem is polygyny, which at 13% is still a too-common-for-comfort practice in most of rural, poorer and more Islamized parts of Kenya. Mr. Omwenga contends that “women in polygamous marriages had a tendency to compete with one another to have more children, thereby raising the total fertility rate for each woman” adding that “the situation in such marriages is made worse if women are competing with their co-wives to balance the sex of their children.”

The 2008/09 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS), the findings of which Mr. Omwenga was commenting on, projects that Kenya has a total population of 40 million. According to the survey the east African nation is on track to reduce the rather high fertility rates if the current economic trends hold. As it is, almost half of Kenyan girls have their first sexual encounter before they are 18. But wealthier and more educated women do so three years later, on average. Younger women are also less likely to be in polygamous relationships, a positive sign if Mr. Omwenga’s observation is factually sound.

Although at 40 million strong, Kenya is still far from a Malthusian disaster despite the endemic food shortages in the arid areas to the north and north east of the country (Ethiopia to the north has over 70 million). That said, the Kenyan government should do a better job of familiarizing Kenyan families with methods of family planning. If living standards are to go up, inflationary-adjusted economic growth must outstrip population growth by a big enough margin. Although in the long-term education (especially the education of girls), greater female labor force participation and the general secular decline of polygamy as more Kenyan men style up will do the trick in reducing fertility rates, the foundation for these has to be laid now. Fewer children NOW will translate into better education for them, including for the all important but oftentimes neglected Kenyan girl-child.

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