Kenya Manages to Slow Population Growth Rate

Economic conditions in Africa make family planning more popular

A LOT of Kenyan parents still ask their married children when they are going to have another baby and name it after them. And many Kenyan men refuse to practice family planning.

But on the eve of the United Nations' World Population Day, July 11, Kenyan and other experts are convinced that after years of widespread disinterest, Kenyans are showing growing acceptance of family planning.

They attribute the change in attitude to a variety of factors: Kenya's declining economy, the threat of AIDS, increasing levels of education, greater availability of family planning services, and Kenyan government and donor support for such services.

As a result, Kenya's population growth rate has dropped from 3.8 percent in 1979 - one of the highest in the world - to about 3.5 percent today, which represents a turnaround after several decades of increasing rates.

And the downward trend in Kenya is accelerating, says Richard Cornelius, a population expert with the US Agency for International Development. Since 1972, USAID has been the major donor to Kenyan population programs. Education is key

Kenya joins Zimbabwe and Botswana in slowing population growth, holding out hope that other countries in Africa may eventually do the same. A key to the progress on population in all three of these countries is a relatively high level of education and strong government commitment to family planning, Mr. Cornelius says.

But Africa still has the highest population growth rate of any continent, about 3 percent, compared to 2.1 percent in Latin America, 2 percent in Asia, and 0.8 percent in North America, according to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau.

Even Africa's success stories don't match the progress made in other third-world countries. Kenyan women, for instance, have an average of 6.5 children; the average for all women in the developing world is 4.

Family planning proponents argue that slowing population growth in Kenya will help reduce future pressure on the job market and demand for land, both potentially explosive issues in this economically struggling country.

There is already widespread unemployment and less than 20 percent of Kenya's land is considered good for farming. Farm land is passed on from father to sons, chopped into smaller and smaller pieces with each generation. The burden of having a large family is becoming more and more evident.

Such pressures, plus urban overcrowding, are reasons why Kenya's "political commitment is strong" on family planning, says Margaret Gachara, deputy director of Kenya's Division of Family Planning.

"In the past four years you can see a real change" in attitudes toward family planning, says Zibeon Muganzi, a lecturer on population at the University of Nairobi. He cites the worsening economy as a major factor for wanting fewer children.

"When you think of buying shoes at 500 [Kenya shillings - about a week's salary for a low-paid worker], you can not afford to bring a child into the society," he says. "Those who don't have jobs are postponing marriage."

Economic pressures all across Africa are making family planning a more acceptable option, says Ayo Ajayi, senior representative in Kenya for the New York-based Population Council. "Ten years ago it was not easy to talk about population" in Africa, he says.

Dr. Ajayi doubts that the widespread threat of AIDS has had much impact on the decline in population growth rates because it is still "a relatively new thing." But Dr. Gachara asserts that AIDS has convinced many families to begin using family planning methods.

She also adds that education of girls in Kenya is "one of the key factors" in greater use of family planning. The idea that you should only have as many children as you can afford to care for well "is a message they are beginning to accept," she says. Women `very active'

While Kenyan girls are turning more to family planning, and more family planning messages are being aimed at recalcitrant men, Kenyan women have in recent years been instrumental in providing more family planning services.

Since 1985, the year Kenya hosted an international conference on women, Kenyan women have "been very active" in running family planning programs, says Agnes Usaji, who helps run a family planning service in a Nairobi slum.

The availability of such services is the key to taking advantage of a change of attitude more favorable to family planning, says USAID's Cornelius. "You've got to have the services available to affect fertility," he says.

Since many African women who say they want to limit the number of their children do not have access to family planning services, making such services more available will help bring further reductions in Africa's birth rates, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

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