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Young schoolboys walk home at the end of the school day in the village of Nyumbani.
Associated Press/Photo by Ben Curtis
Young schoolboys walk home at the end of the school day in the village of Nyumbani.

Undesirables

Kenya | The UN and the Kenyan government report a vexing problem: The ‘demand’ for children is too high

For Kenyan parents who want three or more children, the United Nations has a message: Your desires cross ours.

That’s the thrust of the “Kenya Population Situation Analysis”—a recent report sponsored by the Kenyan government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). (The United States gave the UNFPA $30 million in 2012.)

The 300-page document reports many Kenyan women have unmet needs for family planning services, but it claims a more fundamental problem with high fertility rates in the African nation: Women want more children than the UN and the Kenyan government deem desirable for the country’s development.

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Indeed, the report flatly states Kenyan parents’ “demand” for children is too high: “The demand for children is still high and is unlikely to change unless substantial changes in desired family sizes are achieved among the poor in general … thus the challenge is how to reduce the continued high demand for children.”

UN efforts to discourage population growth in many regions aren’t new, but the findings of the Kenya report are striking. It doesn’t just call for broader access to birth control, it faults Kenyans—particularly poor ones—for desiring more children than the UN or Kenyan government deem best. “The achievement of [lowering fertility] is complicated by differences between individual fertility preferences and desirable fertility levels,” the report states.

One thing is undeniable, Kenya’s population exploded over the last century. In 2008, The New York Times reported the country’s population grew from 3 million to 37 million in 80 years.

During the last 35 years, the country’s per capita income has also grown threefold, but the poverty level remains as high as 42 percent. Higher populations create strains on depressed economies and challenges for communities struggling with steady access to basic necessities like food and clean water.

Still, fertility rates in Kenya have declined since the 1980s. The average number of children per woman in Kenya dropped from 8 to 4.5 in the last 30 years.

But the UN and the Kenyan government want that number to drop more. The report sets a goal of 2.6 children per woman by 2030.

The problem? Kenyan women have consistently expressed a desire for more children. The report noted women in 1993 expressed the ideal number of children at 3.5. In 2009, the number hadn’t changed.

While the report doesn’t call for the kind of government-enforced quotas the Chinese government has imposed on its citizens for over 30 years, it does recommend “education” efforts to persuade Kenyans to have fewer children.

Steven Mosher of the U.S.-based Population Research Institute (PRI) called the report’s premise “insulting to women,” adding, “The Kenyan government, urged on by the UNFPA and USAID, is asserting the women of Kenya should not be allowed to make their own decisions regarding how many children to have, and should be re-educated into rejecting large families.”

Mosher—who also noted that the United States gives millions to the UNFPA and contributes to family planning efforts through USAID—said the new policy could violate the Tiahrt Amendment. That U.S. law prohibits government funding for coercive population control programs, including targets or quotas for births. While the Kenyan policy doesn’t recommend quotas or forced coercion, it does set targets for fertility rates. Mosher’s take: “Congress ought to investigate.”

Meanwhile, the UN, USAID, and dozens of non-profit groups spend millions to offer family planning services in Kenya each year. Planned Parenthood distributed 1.3 million condoms in Kenya in 2011 alone. (Surgical abortion remains illegal in Kenya, except in cases where the mother’s health is endangered.)

And while the UN and other groups might persuade some women to have fewer children, a more important challenge remains: Working toward decent living conditions for the children who do arrive.

Though USAID has spent millions on worthy efforts in Kenya, the group’s spending on health programs in 2011 was revealing. The organization reported spending $60,000 for nutrition. The budget for family planning and reproductive services: $10.9 million.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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