At the inauguration of the new board of the National Population Commission – which has
former Nigeria Breweries MD Festus Odimegwu as Chairman – President Goodluck Jonathan spoke about the possibility of introducing legislation to reduce births. Nigeria’s population currently stands at 160 million, and is projected to hit 433 million by the middle of the century. Looked at in that light, the need to control population is an important one, especially as the challenges of taking care of current responsibilities is daunting. People have to have access to food, water, and other resources to live decent lives.
However, trying to legislate a reduction in the number of children a woman can have will run into unnecessary opposition, and bring controversy where there shouldn’t be any. One of the key drivers of high birth rates is infant mortality. When a woman knows that her children are likely to die or be deformed due to disease or conflict, the motivation to have many children is high. The highest birth rates in the world today are from countries with high infant mortality and constant war. If you are going to ask people to have one or two children, infant mortality must be drastically lowered.
Ending extreme poverty will reduce the need to have many children, so that they can work for the family. We see them every day: hawking, wiping windshields, in the markets, and so on. Only the reality of grinding poverty makes that possible, especially since they could be in school. Prosperous countries show a consistent decline in birth rates. Germany and Japan are just two examples.
There is a need to get religious leaders on the same page with the government. Religion plays a disproportionately important role in Nigeria, and the message of having only the number of children a family can cater for will gain traction faster if religious leaders are enlisted. Religion is also a barrier to having access to and knowledge about contraception. Less than 10% of Nigerian women aged 15-49 use modern contraception, and this is another thing that must change.
Watch Melinda Gates’ excellent TED talk on the need for better access to contraception here.
Perhaps the most fundamental step that can be taken is to focus on educating more women, and make more women part of the labour force. Educated, working women tend to marry later and have fewer children. This is the interesting conclusion Hans Rosling reached at the end of this TED talk.
Already, opposition to any proposed birth control legislation has begun to build from religious leaders, but no matter what faith anyone belongs to, there is no dignity in having more children than one can care for. The Federal government must do all it can to let everyone realise this.
It will not be achieved by legislation, however. The President has done very well to bring the issue of our population explosion to the forefront, but his handling of it will determine whether it becomes part of our national consciousness, or disappears into the fog of religion and empty politics.
A more educated and empowered female population is the key to slowing down a population growth rate that is among the highest in the world, but we must allow women make their own choices, and give them the information necessary to lead healthy lives.