17 May 2012

Uganda: Culture Responsible for Failure of Family Planning


The birth of a newborn baby is often heralded with fanfare and the proud mother is awarded various honorary titles depending on the culture.

While proud father becomes the subject of envy from the impotent men and barren women, the nursing mother is elevated to a status above the ordinary woman. Hence the desire to give birth to a child, or several children, is the future dream of virtually all girls when they become of age, oblivious of the fact that every live birth increases the burden of human population.

As we edge closer to marking the 50th jubilee celebration of Uganda's political independence, it is worth noting the significant successes and failures in nation building. With the fertility rate of 6.9% and population growth rate of 3.2%, Uganda ranks among the fastest growing populations in the world. An estimated 6.9 million citizens were alive when the British colonialists handed over the reins of political power to the natives of Uganda in 1962, but approximately 34 million Ugandans will celebrate the independence anniversary on October 9, 2012.

This rapid population growth which is not matched with expansion of the economy, gainful employment, improved social welfare and health services is a perfect recipe for disaster. This raises a fundamental question as to what should be done to reverse the trend where the potential for human reproduction seems to surpass the capacity for economic productivity.

Family planning has in the past been fronted as a strategy for checking the galloping population growth with little success. Reasons for the apparent failure of the existing family planning strategies are various but tend to hinge on cultural practices and traditional beliefs. Cultural practices, including polygamy and early marriages, have largely remained rooted as accepted ways of life for the Ugandan communities.

It is still believed by many rural based Ugandans that large families are a source of cheap labour and prestige in society. Indeed, working children add to family income, and they are a kind of pension plan, looked to for support during old age. This practice, which is perceived to boost agricultural production, encourages men to marry several wives, consequently producing large numbers of children whose welfare cannot be adequately catered for.

High fertility is also a consequence of major gender inequalities in reproductive costs, benefits and decision-making power within the household. It is women who undertake most of the labour involved in child care. The marriage contract entitles husbands not only to children borne to their wives but also to their labour. Once bride price has been paid off, child bearing becomes relatively cost-free for the father.

Recurring costs may be less directly perceived, particularly if the husband is a non-resident member of the household(s), a feature frequently observed in polygamous marriages. Men, therefore, have both the material incentives, as well as the decision-making power, to act as reproductive free-riders. Consequently, men are unwilling to let their wives access family planning services.

The cultural values, norms and beliefs that make males superior to females bequeathe more reproductive rights to men than women. Consequently, men are the primary decision makers about sexual activity, fertility and contraceptive use. However, receptivity of family planning among men is significantly lower because of beliefs and biases concerning it. For example, the perceived side effects of family planning tend to discourage its usage among the rural and traditional communities, i.e., inability to conceive, birth defects and deformities.

Besides, the non reversible family planning methods, including sterilisation, that are available for men are not only unpopular but are regarded as cultural insults to manhood. Even worse, Ugandan cultures deny women access to independent resources of their own and must rely on family-based entitlements for their survival and security. In addition, women's support to high rates of fertility relates to the more direct benefits that they derive from their children.

Children help in lessening women's workload in both domestic and farming tasks. They are also likely to be an important source of support in their old age, a factor that is often important given the wide gap between spousal ages, particularly in polygamous marriages. Such beliefs and practices are counterproductive for advancing the cause of family planning.

As a result, despite the availability of various family planning methods, only 18.5% use modern contraception methods. In the bid to have a healthier and productive population therefore, there is need to revisit the expenditure patterns on family planning and to commit more funds towards education and sensitisation drives.

The author is Executive Director, African Association of Gender Economists (AAGE).

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