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.

27-year old mother of nine, and four months pregnant

It is no secret that if standards of living are to improve on the Continent the rate of economic growth must outstrip that of the population. Sadly, Africa’s demographic transition continues to be a dream deferred. High (gendered) illiteracy rates, ignorance about (and church opposition to) contraceptives, antiquated cultural practices, among other things continue to reproduce all over the Continent crazy scenarios such as this in Madagascar: A 27-YEAR OLD WOMAN WHO HAS NINE CHILDREN AND FOUR MONTHS PREGNANT. This is insanity.

Quoting Donasine (said mother): “We are farmers, but without rain we were not able to grow anything. Every year I have another baby, and I am worried – I don’t have anything to feed them.” Add to this not being able to educate them or provide them with proper healthcare and you’ll see the utter abomination that is the continued anti-contraceptive movement in segments of African society. I am not saying that the Continent is over-populated. Far from it. China supports way more people with less arable land. What I am saying is that we are not in 10,000BC and therefore people should plan their lives better, and that it is the duty of government, the church and other relevant social institutions to ensure that people are aware of the alternatives they have. It is about time we stopped hiding behind culture and God and what not and see things for what they really are. Women like Donasine do not have ten children because they choose to do so. They are forced to do so by circumstances beyond their control.

For more on this check out Kristof at the Times.