Niger's high birth rate caused by religion, poverty

Report
from Agence France-Presse
Published on 09 Aug 2005
by Boureima Hama

MARADI, Niger, Aug 9 (AFP) - A 37-year-old woman, weary and wailing with labor pains, was trying to give birth to her 13th child in Niger, a country with one of the highest birth rates in the world but where millions are now facing food shortages due to drought.

"I am exhausted, my uterus too," said Zeinabou, as she struggled through labor at a birthing center in Maradi in southern Niger.

Salamatou Adamou, who was assisting the birth, understood the complaint. She is a widow and mother of 12 children, "all living", she added.

Drought-stricken Niger, facing a famine with thousands of children suffering from severe malnutrition, has one of the highest birth rates in the world.

Women in the northwest African country have an average of eight children each, a birth rate attributed to a strict adherence to Islam, young marriages and poverty.

A midwife in Maradi, standing in front of a sign encouraging couples -- apparently in vain -- to space out the births of their children, said she sees about 20 births a day.

"It's too much for only one neighborhood. We are overwhelmed," said the midwife who identified herself only as Mrs. Moctar, as about a dozen women sat in a post-birth room breastfeeding newborns.

The Maradi region, home to the Haussa ethnic group and near neighboring Nigeria, accounts for one-fifth of Niger's 12 million people.

In the old quarters of Maradi city, signs of the region's Islamic religion, the multi-colored minarets of mosques, towered above the narrow streets.

Islam is seen as one of the main reasons for Niger's high birth rate.

El Hadj Sabiou, a preacher at the mosque in the Limantchi neighborhood, said procreation is dictated to the faithful in the Koran, Islam's holy book.

"The Koran says: 'To better propagate the faith, the Islamic Oumah (community) must procreate, a lot'," he said.

Islam also allows polygamy.

"Once they have a little money, men marry at least two women. If each one has eight children, add it up!," said Nagodje Maman, a teacher with two wives and the father of 14 children.

According to the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, teenage marriages are also another reason for so many births.

In Niger, "about 60 percent of youths are under the age of 18. Many girls marry at age 15 or younger, and they can have children up until they are 45 years old," said Jean Lieby, a UNICEF expert in Maradi.

And women rarely protest. "It's the men who decide. You risk your reputation if you refuse to give birth," says Zeinabou in her 13th labor.

For the past 15 years, Islamic fundamentalists have waged a campaign undermining official programs promoting contraceptives, calling them "the evil work of the West."

Two-thirds of the people in Niger live on less than one dollar a day and more than 80 percent subsist on primitive farming. Children become a necessary extra pair of hands to work the land.

But the country on the edge of the Sahara desert is in the throes of a food crisis after severe drought and a plague of locusts last year.

The UN and other international aide organizations have made emergency pleas for aid and food supplies at starting to arrive.

The UN says that the food shortages affect about 2.5 million people, including 32,000 children with severe malnutrition who face death without the necessary food and medical treatment.

Illiteracy is another problem for the former French colony. Less than a quarter of school-age children attend classes.

The burgeoning population has also hampered Niger's government in its efforts to fight poverty and stimulate development in the Sahal country.

Over the next 45 years, Niger's population is estimated to reach 55.8 million people, according to a government study published last month.

bh/boc/wdb

Copyright (c) 2005 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 08/09/2005 07:06:25

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