Women Should Have the Human Right to Control their Own Bodies

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Population growth has been in the news as the UN announced that by 2050 Nigeria may become the third largest country in the world, after China and India.  The Vice President also said recently that Nigeria was sitting on a demographic time-bomb unless critical stakeholders support the government’s effort at building an economy that will support the nation’s fast-growing population.

The population has certainly grown.  In 1960 the population was only 45 million, now it is over 180 million.  So there are now four times as many Nigerians as there were at independence.  The grand children of those farmers who celebrated independence have, on average, only a quarter of the land that was available for their grandparents (one of the reasons for community disputes like the herder/farmer clashes).   Each year 300,000 young people leave universities to look for employment – joining the third or more of their age-mates who are already unemployed.

The population of Nigeria continues to grow relatively quickly.  The average population density of Nigeria is only around 200 people per square kilometre.  In contrast, the density in England is almost twice as much at 400 per square kilometre.  But then if things do not change drastically, Nigeria will reach this level by 2040.  By then, in only 22 years time, the population is again expected to more than doubled to reach over 400 million – and climate change will reduce agricultural productivity.

This may not be a major problem – as long as, as Osinbajo said – the economy also grows (and the benefits are shared out much more equitably).  If population is seen as a problem then an easy answer is to give all women the basic human right to control their bodies and to choose when and if they want to become pregnant.  This is far from the case today.

Only around one in ten couples use modern contraceptives and the government estimates that there is a major unmet need for family planning.  Making decent health services available to all, including safe modern contraceptives, would significantly improve the lives of many people.   The average woman in Nigeria will have 5.5 children and in the north this may be as high as 7.5 children – one of the highest rates in the world.  Reducing this and spacing out births would significantly reduce maternal mortality and allow parents to better look after their children.

Making abortion legal would also provide a safety net when contraception fails.  Many woman resort to such action to be able to control their own fertility.  Most woman have had at least one abortion by the time they are forty five years old.  Tens of thousands of women may die each year from complications arising from illegal abortions.  Even when women are raped by their husbands or partners it is still illegal for them to have an abortion!  Making abortion legal would make it much safer and reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

Nearly a quarter of young women start childbearing before they are 20 years old.  Free availability of effective contraceptives and proper sex education at school would greatly reduce this.  Sex education should not be seen as a taboo.  The girl child needs to understand the implications of sex and how to avoid getting pregnant.  In addition, education and jobs should provide alternative avenues to these women.  If young women cannot afford to stay on at school and cannot find decent work, they can get pregnant, leading to greater population growth.  Unfortunately if a pupil falls pregnant she will then be excluded from school and so cutting off her route to education and a better future.  Education will encourage women to delay having a family and increase their likelihood of having a smaller family.

Unfortunately, a recent survey by the World Bank found that Nigeria has one of poorest education and health systems of any African country.  In terms of education, quality of schooling in Nigeria is worse than even South Sudan, although children spend longer attending school in Nigeria.  Similarly health services, as measured by the survival rate of both children and adults, is hardly any better than South Sudan.  This is a damning indictment of the governments of Nigeria.  Even with all the oil wealth available they have failed to provide basic public health and education compared with South Sudan, a young country ravaged by civil war that only gained its independence in 2011.

Decent high quality health services are essential to provide the human right for women to control the number of pregnancies they have.  Good health services also reduce the number of children that die unnecessarily and so reduce the number of children that parents want.

In many communities, government failure means that children are the alternative security and insurance for the future.  Children can go hawking from a young age and so supplement the family income.  They also provide insurance when their parents fall ill and need medicine and hospital care.  Finally children provide care for old age.  The absence or low payment of pensions means that people need children to look after them when they are no longer able to work.

For all these reasons, poverty and inequality are the major causes of high population growth.  Population growth does not cause poverty.  It is the reverse; population growth is a major symptom of poverty.  The government should do far more to reduce inequality (Oxfam again found that the Nigerian government does the least of any government surveyed).  It should also provide decent education, especially for girl children to provide them with an alternative to having their own children.  Decent health services will also enable women to control when they fall pregnant and increase their desire to have fewer children.

by Tina NDI

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