Weeks ago, President John Magufuli of Tanzania made some statements that showed his distaste for birth control and/or family planning. In the statement, he said it was just a personal opinion. See below:
Those going for family planning are lazy. They are afraid they will not be able to feed their children. They do not want to work hard to feed a large family and that is why they opt for birth controls and end up with one or two children only. You people… keep livestock. You are good farmers. You can feed your children. Why would you opt for birth control? I have travelled to Europe and I have seen the effects of birth control. In some countries they are now struggling with a declining population. They have no labour force. Women can now throw away their contraceptives. Education is now free.
Magufuli however has moved that opinion to making it a national concern when he banned all forms of advertisements that encouraged birth control in the media. Therefore, from advising women to throw away contraceptives, it is now more or less a command to stop the usage of contraceptives.
As expected, reactions have followed. There are backlashes from different quatres. First, Amnesty International.
There’s no doubt that sexual and reproductive rights are coming under increasing attack in Tanzania. The government’s deplorable decision to pull these family planning ads comes less than two weeks after the President made derogatory remarks about Tanzanians wishing to exercise their fundamental right to make decisions about their bodies. The Tanzanian authorities must immediately stop obstructing access to sexual and reproductive health services and end the intimidation of anyone providing information about such services – be they health workers, journalists or activists.
Then, Judy Gitau, the Regional Coordinator for Africa for Equality Now, told the Guardian:
It’s a statement by a sitting head of state at a time when Tanzania takes every statement that he issues to be law… From past experiences, whenever the president issues a statement on a given issue, in practice it becomes policy, and so we can expect ramifications. We will end up with women having unplanned children and huge families, unable to sustain their lives.
In November 2016, I volunteered to assist a friend carry out a family planning awareness in two very rural twin communities, Gyigyi/Sharuwadna in Nigeria’s Niger State. The exercise took a few days, sponsored by Women Deliver and anchored by their Nigerian Ambassador, Adebisi Adenipekun. Even the Wife of the Governor of the state was invited to lecture the rural women on the importance of having children when necessary.
The exercise took a funny turn when, at the end of the public lectures and gathering of data on their reproductive health, we proceeded to share certain contraceptive materials to the villagers. We did not expect the unanimous rejection, at least, not after all the teachings and interactions. Were they not paying attention all along? They would have nothing to do with us or our ‘cursed gifts’. It was dumbfounding.
I believe Magufuli would have given those women a rousing ovation for doing that. I highlighted that story to point out that the Magufuli hatred for family planning is indeed, a pan-African view. He is only being ambitiously bold as a president, to attack the concept and its rising influence in Africa. But is he wrong in removing the barrier to more births?
This essay cannot fully highlight the various issues that are related to family planning, especially in Africa, given that the discussion involves cultural and religious leanings. Within those circles, the debate remains unfinished about the acceptability of birth control. Birth control itself has different methods, including the dreaded abortion; so the issue of morality is roped in. But the major thrust, which the birth control opponents also find difficult to win is that of population and its effect on national development.
Generally, there seems to be a serious inter-generational war going on in modern Africa. Modern Africans are torn between embracing the western-centric ‘freedom’ that comes with contemporariness and sustaining the old, culture and religion-influenced ‘restrictions’, even in matters that are, say, personal. This is where the battle line is drawn: human rights versus belief systems.
Africa sees childbearing as involving ancestors and other deities so it is not really a choice or right of the child bearer on when s/he should bear how many children. The child bearer is to remove any sort of control so the child (from the spirit world) can come into the world whenever it wants, either for the first time or to incarnate. Birth control then, is like reducing the accesses or cutting the communication flow between the worlds of the dead, the living and the unborn.
But things have changed. While the younger generation wants to fly with its counterparts in other parts of the world by the letting go of such systems, the older generation is tying the former’s waist with stronger ropes, to ensure they do not fly out of control. But for the government, who has found itself at the epicentre of these contentious beliefs, traditions with modernity, popular culture and all, how it keeps its head cool and concentrate on development and providing all its societal needs becomes a puzzle.
Interestingly, Magufuli, in his government capacity, is biased here. He is of the old order. And for him to declare ‘operation fill-up Tanzania’, is to reinstate the authority of that old order over the popular cultures.
Laziness in feeding children. There is free education for every child. Fear of a future ageing population.
But Magufuli should know, that societies have come beyond having children and giving them food. He should be reminded that children do not remain children; they become adults with needs that must be met. In times past, at even 15, a young African boy could have had his own farm, built a small hut and got married. Now, that is no longer the reality. That is where Magufuli gets his argument wrong.
People are not family-planning out of laziness because the demands of societies are becoming higher. Feeding is the least among education, housing, health, employment, security.
Many, like Magufuli, believe that it is God (or gods) that takes care of children so the thought of child welfare should not arise in a parent. Really? But that God ‘has failed’ to sustain those children turned youths and adults some of who are now dead on their way to Europe.
The many young men transiting through seas and deserts to ‘disturb’ developed economies today were fed when they were born. But do they still have those foods they ate as children now? No, they now have to fend for themselves in underdeveloped cities. Rural life is phasing out as the city life takes over. But how many young people can meet up with the demands of city lives? O Magufuli, the era of just eating is gone.
Magufuli says there is free education. Good. But what is the quality of Tanzanian education from the nursery to university levels? Has Magufuli opened companies to absorb all his graduates yearly? With about 10% unemployment rate in Tanzania, having nearly 60 million people with close to 2 million births each year, what does Magufuli envisage in the next decade if all forms of birth control are removed? Between 1970 and 2015, that is 45 years, China was able to prevent 400-500 million births. Assuming there was no such thing in China, there would be such huge number of people competing for resources in the already overpopulated China.
Am I against Magufuli’s stance? Not entirely. Am I making a case for family planning and birth control? I hardly know. But what is fundamental is that taking care of those who are alive is far more important than making rooms for the unborn. Whether families are planned or not, reproduction is permanent; humans must have children. The president would have sounded wonderfully if all Tanzanians now lived above the poverty level; their level of education is able to compete globally; Tanzania is heavily industrialised; there is below 5% unemployment rate; urban life has become more available than the rural; then, he would have made more sense to say: Tanzania needs more children.
According to the world population forecast, Tanzania, with the current trend of ‘birth control’ would be having:
With that projection, Tanzania can never have an aged population, so his cenotophobic assertion is flawed. So, imagine the figures, if everyone indulges Magufuli? In a report by Watchdog Uganda, Cecil Mwambe, a Tanzanian MP, said the country’s health insurance scheme can only accommodate a maximum of four children from one family. Mark the word, ‘maximum.
While the validity of birth control will remain a debate, it is yet out of the hands of any African government to fight it, whether for religious or cultural reasons. They are only qualified to do so when they have made lives comfortable for the people they have now.
So, a little yes to Magufuli being wrong. Why is he interested in more children when the ones already born still lack what children in developed nations have. Has Tanzania a social welfare package for newly born children? Seven out of every 10 children in Tanzania are living in poverty, according to a 2016 report by the National Bureau of Statistics. So if 70% of Magufuli’s children wallow in poverty, why does he want to increase that by adding more children? What Tanzanians, like other Africans, need is responsible governments.
Some argue still, that birth control is a satanic tool that is coming from the west to control Africa. That may be true. But let it not be that in our bid to fight satanism, we forget our burning houses to chase after rats. Africa already has a population problem. We have to engage in massive infrastructural development and industrialisation to take care of all that are already born. Only then can we enforce more child births. Magufuli should leave parents to their ‘laziness’.
McDike Dimkpa is a contributor to The African Progressive Economist and the opinions expressed here are his own.