Family ties: . . . and mothers

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Birthrates go down, specialists note, when the overall conditions of women improve, as a result of education and a widening sense of their ability to contribute to the family in ways other than bearing and rearing many children. ROSEMARY walks down a rutted dirt road near Kinangop, Kenya, with her children -- all nine of them.

The youngest, barely two months old, dozes in a threadbare towel slung across his mother's back. The eldest, a long-legged girl in a blue-and-white school uniform, has just turned 14. Their mother is 30 years old.

The air is damp and chilly on this high plateau, yet mother and children are barefoot. A few wear tattered sweaters over their flimsy garments, and one boy sports a bulky wool cap. But none are adequately dressed, and the youngest children's teeth are chattering.

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Rosemary, apparently aware of official efforts to reduce family size, is reluctant to admit that all the children are hers. Asked if she and her husband expect to have more, she lowers her eyes shyly, while her oldest children giggle.

Finally, in a small voice, she replies, ``I don't know. We have never discussed it.'' Population pressures

With an annual birthrate of 54 per 1,000, and an average of 8.1 children per woman, Kenya has the highest fertility rate in the world. Its annual rate of population growth, at 4.1 percent, is also the highest. By contrast, the annual birthrate in the United States is 16 per 1,000. West Germany -- whose population is actually declining -- has the lowest annual birthrate, 10 per 1,000.

According to the projections of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, Kenya's population will increase from 20.2 million to 37.3 million by the year 2000. Its population ``doubling time'' is 17 years. Even today, Kenya is not self-sufficient in food.

Rosemary wants her children to move to the capital when they grow up, since opportunities for work in their village are few. But like most country people, she is unaware of the spiraling unemployment and appalling living conditions in Mathare Valley, the Nairobi slum where most rural immigrants live. The total population of Nairobi is expected to quadruple by the year 2000. Yet Kenya has had a national family planning program since 1967 -- the oldest such program in sub-Saharan Africa.

Twice a week, a doctor visits a lumber plant near Rosemary's village. Local women can bring their children for checkups and receive contraceptives and advice on birth control. But Rosemary has never been there.

Although Rosemary knows that the authorities wish to discourage large families like hers, there are many reasons why she -- and thousands of other African women -- have not wanted to limit the number of their children.

Population experts believe that first among these reasons is the high rate of infant mortality in Africa: 82 out of 1,000 births in Kenya, as compared with 10.5 in the United States and 38 in China. In fact, Kenya has one of Africa's lowest infant mortality rates. Sierra Leone has the continent's highest: 200 per 1,000 births.

The decline of infant mortality in Kenya in recent years accounts in part for the country's population boom. The age-old expectation that many children will die has not yet adjusted to the improved health care now available in most areas. A woman will want to have many children if she expects that a number of them will not survive. Rosemary has lost one baby so far. Large families -- a rural status symbol

Traditionally, African peasants see children as an investment in the future: There will be more workers to help fetch water and firewood, till the land, and provide for their parents in old age. And a woman's status in rural communities is greatly enhanced the more children she has -- particularly sons. When a woman first marries, her surest means of gaining the acceptance and respect of her in-laws -- among whom she must now live -- is to start bearing children as quickly as possible. If she doesn't, h er husband may take a second wife.

To Westerners it may seem extraordinary that Rosemary and her husband have never discussed the size of their family, yet this too is typical of many rural African couples. Conversation between a man and a woman about such matters is considered improper. In any case, it is usually taken for granted that both partners want as many children as possible. And in remote areas, many people are unaware that the size of their family can be controlled at all.

The attitudes of African men in rural areas appear to be a major obstacle to family planning. ``The village would laugh at my husband if I didn't have a child every other year,'' was a common explanation for not using birth control cited by Perdita Huston in 1978 in her book ``Message from the Village.'' The husband's reputation for virility is at stake. ``Men think that we would go with other men if we used a contraceptive'' was another reason frequently voiced by wives who eschew birth control.

Yet many African women find their health declining the more children they have. With their grueling workloads and low level of nutrition, they are often physically exhausted by continued pregnancies and births. Many closely spaced births are seen as a major contributor to chronic anemia, a problem affecting a majority of women in the developing world. The unrelieved cycle of alternating pregnancy and nursing drains their energies, leaving both mothers and children more vulnerable to ill health. Rosemary

herself is gaunt and tired-looking -- old beyond her years. Changing attitudes

In 1978, Ms. Huston found that while most women were eager to limit their families (usually for reasons of health), men were not. But conversations with women in developing countries today indicate that a change is now taking place in men's attitudes as well. On a global scale, Africans like Rosemary and her husband now appear to be an exception to the rule.

Nearly all of the dozens of women interviewed by the Monitor this year in eight countries outside sub-Saharan Africa wanted small families: two, three, four children at the most. Many were using some method of birth control provided by a local family planning program. Moreover, most said that their husbands also wanted few children. And invariably, the reasons given were economic. From remote villages to urban slums, large families have become a luxury that few can afford.

Population experts cite Colombia, Mexico, and Thailand as having the most successful government-sponsored voluntary family planning programs. (This does not include China, where the strict limiting of families to one child is mandatory.) Mexico's birth rate has dropped from 44.9 per thousand in the early '60s to 32 in 1985. Those of Colombia and Thailand have fallen from 44.6 and 43.5 to 28 and 25, respectively, for the same period.

Programs in these countries rely heavily on local communications media to broadcast the message of family planning. Large amounts of government money are pumped into national campaigns, and contraceptive methods -- from the pill to sterilization -- are made freely available, even in remote rural areas.

Yet family planning programs are not the only route to population control. Many specialists note that birthrates also go down when the overall conditions of women improve -- as a result of education and a widening sense of their ability to contribute to the family in ways other than having many children.

As an example, experts cite Sri Lanka, which, at 27 births per 1,000, has the third-lowest birthrate of Asia's developing countries. They feel that the high level of women's literacy there is a significant factor in controlling population growth.

If Rosemary had gone to school (which she did not), she might have been more receptive to the idea that a woman with fewer children can take better care of them and of herself, thus ensuring a healthier family. She would also have been able to read the printed material available at her local clinic, which explains the birth control, and simple health care methods, which are available to her but are now beyond her reach.

It has also been observed that a woman's earning power can be a positive factor in her practice of family planning. Women who earn money enjoy more respect from family members, hence have more autonomy. They have greater self-esteem and are more likely to want to plan and control the size of their families.

Rosemary tills her husband's four-acre plot of vegetables, and he takes the produce to market. Since she never sees the direct results of her labor, no one considers her a breadwinner.

Motherhood -- both in her own opinion and that of her relatives -- is her principal contribution to society.

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