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Is The ECOWAS Parliament Three Children per Woman Proposal the Answer to West Africa’s Population Crisis ?

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Parliamentarians from ECOWAS, Mauritania and Chad agreed, on Saturday July 22 to advocate that parliaments should encourage governments to put in place policies to ensure that by 2030, every woman in the region has no more than three children to control the rapid population growth of the region.

Estimated to be one of the fastest growing regions in the world, the population of West Africa is expected  to reach a billion by 2050 if the high fertility rates of 5.6 children per woman are not drastically reduced.  To induce “a rapid, voluntary decline” in the birth rate the Parliamentarians propose that women should reduce the number of children that they give birth to.

Curbing the rapid population growth as a means to addressing the macro socio-economic concerns of the West African Region is well intended.  The pronouncement however shows the Parliamentarians lack of cognisance regarding the gendered impacts that such a policy would have on the lives of individual women and families.

The statement of ‘three children per woman’ is in itself discriminatory.  It alludes to control over the reproductive life of a woman and the number of children that she can have.  There is no reference to the number of children that a man can have.  In a region where polygamy is widely practised it can be surmised that a man can have up to twelve children, if he has the optimum number of wives allowed him under the polygamous system.  He can have more or less depending on the number of times that he marries or remarries.

Undertones of patriarchy are also discerned in the proposed policy of three children per woman. Under the guise of curbing the high population growth rate in the region what the ECOWAS Parliamentarians are inadvertently doing is an attempt to dominate and control female labour, reproduction and sexuality and define their status, privileges and rights.  Patriachy is so entrenched in West African that it is difficult to separate its lines of demarcation from the private to the public spaces.

In our region, the dominance of the male over the female is pervasive and influences decision making on a woman’s reproductive live. The number of children that a woman has are mostly not determined by her but by her husband and other external influences such as societal preference for the boy child. To satisfy the family desire of having a son, some women have given multiple births of a girl child in search of a son, sometimes unsuccessfully.

A son improves the status of the woman and in the case of widowhood increases her access to family wealth through her son’s inheritance.   With more women working and earning independent sources of income and the concerted efforts by many organizations to uplift the status of girls through education this practice is diminishing.

In a region that is characterized by high child mortality and the uncertainty of child survival rates have prompted many women to have multiple children to ensure that they would have a survivor(s) to take care of them in their old age.  In the absence of social welfare policies that provide for the elderly many people have to rely on children for support in their old age. The lack of mechanisation and labour saving devices has also motivated women to have as many children as they can to help with household chores and other tasks.

The issues highlighted above are only some of the contributory factors to the high fertility rate in West Africa.  To address the population problems understanding the issues and putting in place mechanisms to address them could contribute to successfully reducing family sizes.

Education is the key and perhaps most powerful tool to reduce fertility rates. Women who have studied longer are more likely to postpone, space out pregnancies, have less children and take better care of their children.  Investing in education is a better route to naturally reducing fertility rates than policies that seek to control the number of children that a woman should have.

China, Japan and Russia that have implemented birth control policies putting social and economic considerations above individual needs and interests are today facing serious challenges as a result of these policies.

President Vladimir Putin in his State of the Union address in 2000 said that if the population decline trend were to continue, the existence of Russian people would be endangered and put in place a new population policy and a series of measures to roll back the problem.

The impacts of Japan’s attempts to decrease the population growth rate in the 1950’s was discerned in early 2000 with negative impacts on the economy, social and security systems.  Since then the Japanese government has been encouraging increased fertility in Japan.

China’s one child per couple policy introduced in the seventies has has many troubling social outcomes. These include the « missing women » and the « bare branches » phenomenon.  Caused by an imbalance in the Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB).  Many women are pushed to choose the sex of their children, preferring boys over girls and many Chinese men are now finding it difficult to find a female partner. The “bare branches” who are mainly poor rural men is an off shoot of this problem. They exist in very large numbers and constitute a significant threat as they can resort to crime and violence to improve their own situation and status.

Rapid aging and decline of population size is a great threat to the Chinese economy, labor markets, social welfare systems and infrastructure.  Care and support for the aged is a problem and places tremendous pressure on the family and government in its planning for the future demographic structure of the country.

The Women’s Torch calls on ECOWAS Parliamentarians  toestablish fact finding missions, research and a detailed analysis of the situation to better mitigate the West African population crisis before further expanding on the policy of three women per child for West African women.