The Proposed Female Childbearing Limit is an ill Thought out Policy

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Nigeria bears the title of the world’s most populous black nation with pride. The last population census held in 2006 put the country’s population figures at 140 million people. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Nigeria’s population as at 2016 stood at nearly 186 million. Another population census was billed to take place in 2019 to officially put a number to the fast-growing population.

The world’s population is expected to rise from its current 7.3 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050 as reported by the United Nations. By 2050, Nigeria is expected to overtake the United States of America (USA) as the third most populous country on the planet, right behind China and India. The country’s population is expected to be more than double its current population figure and reach 410 million.

With the alarming increase in population and dwindling resources to cater for such a large populace, it comes as no surprise that the Nigerian Government is seeking avenues to curb the population explosion. At the 2018 Nigerian Economic Summit, the Finance Minister, Zainab Ahmed, identified Nigeria’s large population as an impediment to the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). She said the Federal Government (FG) is working on a policy document that will limit the number of children per mother and hopes to implement it with the help of traditional rulers.

Problems with the Proposed Female Childbearing Limit Policy

Population control is important. A population that outgrows available resources will remain poor for a long time. With a population of nearly 190 million people, Nigeria has the highest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world. It makes sense that the FG will find ways to control population growth whilst fighting to implement the ERGP. But the proposed female childbearing limit policy is akin to flogging a dead horse. All that activity gets us nowhere.

The plan targets only mothers without taking into consideration the men who fathered those children. Polygamy is still practised in many parts of Nigeria today. Limiting the number of children per mother does nothing to curb population growth as Nigerian men who have more than one wife will end up with many children. For example, a man who has three wives will have more children regardless of his ability to provide for said children. This does nothing to reduce the population as there will still be a large number of births.

While a large population and dwindling resources are closely tied to poverty, this policy does nothing to address child marriages which sees thousands of young Nigerian girls married off each year before the age of 18. Limiting the number of children per mother does nothing to address the cycle of poverty child brides are often forced into. This cycle repeats with such child brides being forced to marry off their own children to reduce the financial burden on the family.

Another thing worth noting is that many births aren’t registered in Nigeria. According to UNICEF, nearly 70 percent of the annual 5 million births recorded in Nigeria are unregistered at birth. The Nigerian Population Commission (NPC) compounds this problem by frustrating parents who wish to register the births of their infants by charging exorbitant fees. With the downward trend of the Nigerian economy in the past 3 years, many parents in urban areas aren’t registering the births of their infants as they did in previous years. Parents in rural areas also have no incentives to register births as well. This means that many Nigerian children do not legally exist in any government database. So how does the government hope to track the number of children per mother when many births aren’t registered?

What incentives do Nigerian women who adhere to the limit stand to gain? It is particularly disingenuous to make laws for the populace when you do not keep your end of the social contract. Because the Govt has failed to provide social services and basic amenities for its citizens, Nigerians are forced to do so by themselves. Most families provide security, water, education, light and other basic amenities for themselves. How does the Govt plan to enforce this limit when the citizens barely depend on them for most amenities? For a Govt that does very little to provide social services and basic amenities to its citizens, enforcing this policy will be a near herculean task.

Solutions to the Nigerian Population Explosion

It is mind-boggling to create a new policy to tackle the problem of population explosion when there are already several policies and programmes in place. The issue is that many of such policies aren’t enforced properly in different states in the federation. The solutions to Nigeria’s exploding population are already in place, all that is required is strict enforcement.

One of such policies that seek to tackle child marriage and increase school enrolment is the Child Rights Act (2003). Educating girls has been proven to reduce the prevalence of child marriages as well as equip girls to earn a living. Educated women tend to have fewer children compared to uneducated women. Child marriages contribute significantly to population increase as many girls who are married off before the age of 18 have little to no control over their reproductive autonomy and thus, start birthing children very early. Young girls who are married aren’t taught about birth control, child spacing and other family planning methods that will enable them to retain control over their body. Child brides are often at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and may suffer from Vesico-Vaginal Fistula (VVF) due to getting pregnant before their body is developmentally ready to handle the burdens of pregnancy.

Child marriage is a big problem in Nigeria as 43 percent of all young girls in the country are married off by the age of 18. The prevalence of child marriages varies within regions. The Northwest has the highest prevalence with 76 percent while the Southeast has the lowest with 10 percent. Section 22 of the Child Rights Act states “a person under the age of 18 is incapable of contracting a valid marriage. If such a marriage does take place, it should be declared null and void and of no effect.” This Act also makes it a crime not to educate children from Primary to Secondary school as stated in section 15. But this law suffers from lack of enforcement as 9 states in the North are yet to domesticate the Act. If this Act was domesticated and enforced in all 36 states, girls will have access to at least 9 years of schooling and learning a trade or 12 full years of schooling. This will reduce child marriages. It will also curb overpopulation as many of these girls will have more autonomy over their bodies and will make decisions about marriage when they are better equipped to handle it.

Over the course of her life, a Nigerian woman is expected to give birth to an average of 5.5 children. For a country that is experiencing a population explosion, this figure is alarming. The FG promised to increase the Contraceptive Prevalence Rate (CPR) from 15 percent to 36 by 2018 at the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning. In 2014, the FG released a policy document detailing how it hopes to achieve this and the benefits that will accrue from the higher CPR.  This high CPR will prevent over 1.1 million infants and children mortality, 1.6 million abortions and save the lives of women and girls who resort to unsafe abortions. The FG’s efforts at partnering with NGOs, state govts and healthcare professionals has largely been met with stiff opposition by conservative thinking among Nigerians, many of whom are firm believers in having many children as prescribed in their culture and religion of choice.

In Nigerian society, women alone are often burdened with the task of contraception and family planning. Many women cannot access family planning services without their husbands. It has been observed that when women accessed family planning alone, their husbands often accused them of doing so because of a nefarious purpose such as cheating rather than child spacing, pregnancy or STI prevention. Conservative thinking among religious health professionals also limits unmarried women’s access to these contraceptives. This is because unmarried women who seek contraception and family planning are seen as promiscuous and sinful by those who should be helping them access contraceptives.

There are already programmes in place to curb Nigeria’s population explosion. Rather than expend more money in implementing a female childbearing limit which wouldn’t work, the FG should focus on programmes already in place. These programmes can be refined, implemented and enforced to ensure that the Nigerian population doesn’t hit 410 million in the next 32 years.



Photo Credit: International Center for Investigative Reporting

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