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At Niger's School For Husbands, The Lesson Is 'Space Your Children'

At a session of the school for husbands in Chadakori, the topic of discussion is spacing out children.
Ron Haviv/VII for NPR
At a session of the school for husbands in Chadakori, the topic of discussion is spacing out children.

The school for husbands is in session in Niger. It's part of an effort to bring down the world's highest birthrate: more than seven children per woman on average. That's a major problem in a country that depends on agriculture but has only a limited amount of land that can be farmed — much of Niger is desert — and ever more hungry mouths. The current population of 17 million is expected to double in 20 years if the birthrate stays at its current level.

Jason Beaubien visited Niger this summer to see how the government is trying to bring down family size. He'll report on this topic on the radio in the weeks ahead, but gave Goats and Soda a preview of the schools for husbands, which began in 2011 as a program from the United Nations Population Fund. In different communities, men meet twice a month, under a tree or in an open-air classroom, to talk about maternal health and contraception.

What's the basic message of the school for husbands?

It's an effort to get people to accept contraceptives, which is fairly controversial in Niger. A lot of times they talk about child spacing — instead of using the word contraception, which raises red flags with a lot of people.

Why is the idea of contraception controversial?

In Niger, having a big family was traditionally a sign of success, a sign that you're rich, you're doing well. You're a big man if you have a big family. Yet now having a big family is becoming a huge problem. Even the president talked about it being shameful this month for people to have 20 kids if they're not able to feed them. There's a growing awareness that something has to give on the population growth.

Is the government trying a strict "one-child" policy message, a la China?

It's like the soft version of China's one-child policy. They don't come out and hit people hard and say this is what you have to do. They're saying we're going to make contraception available in all the health clinics. They're trying to make contraception more acceptable to people, to get the word out that not only is it OK for women to use contraception but that they should be using contraception.

Any particular kinds of contraception?

At the health clinics they've got traditional condoms, female condoms, IUDs, injections. Obviously the pill as well.

They have had some problems keeping these [options] all in stock across a country. But for the most part they are now available. The issue is getting women to actually use contraception. In this society you have to convince the men that it's OK because that's how the decision is going to get made.

The guys who come to the school are young guys, just married ... ?

It tends to lean to guys who are a bit more mature and older, people who are already influential in the community, clergy.

I did talk to one guy who was 39, quite a bit older than his wife but younger than a lot of the men we saw in the school for husbands. I asked whether he would want to have 12 children. He was like, "That's ridiculous."

When I asked how many, he said, "That's up to God." But it is clear that younger men are expecting a smaller family than previous generations. So that change is happening.

Any other strategies to bring down the birth rate?

There is definitely a push to have women get married later, not at 12 or 13 or 14 but in their late teens, early 20s. That shortens the period when they would be having children.

Is it working?

Some girls still are forced to marry [at a young age]. But there was a case of a girl who went to court to stop her family from forcing her to marry her uncle in Nigeria. Ultimately, she was successful.

Meanwhile, it must be helpful for farming families to have lots of kids.

They're out there with a hoe, growing one crop, mainly millet, as close to the river as possible.

Do the kids hoe?

The kids do the hoeing. Kids are valuable because they can work the fields.

How will families get by with fewer kids?

Infant mortality is going down, so kids are surviving longer. But people don't yet understand that they don't need to have as many kids because most of the kids are now going to survive to adulthood. That wasn't always the case in the past.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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