A survey conducted in four African countries by the International Planned Parenthood Federation to mark its 60th birthday, provides some eye-opening insights on fertility. This federation describes itself as the world's largest sexual and reproductive health and rights organisation. Its anniversary was celebrated in Johannesburg this week.
The survey, although stated to be brief, still provides what the Federation calls a "snapshot" of sexual attitudes among the youth of the four countries. In a statement released after the celebrations, the Federation said "More than 9,000 young people in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Namibia took part in the survey conducted by Pondering Panda, a consumer insights and research company."
9000 respondents may not be a representative sample of the total number of young people in the four countries, but it is also not an insignificant number. After asking the same questions to 9000 individuals, Pondering Panda must have a good indication of profiles and trends.
The Federation said Africa's young people are increasingly better informed about sex and sexual health, but many are failing to act on their better levels of sex education. Yet, the survey found that between 15% and 20% of respondents across the four countries had sexual relations while under 16.
One fifth of any population profile is a statistically significant number raising the question, how many teenagers are actually sexually active, and what is the real percentage that eventually falls pregnant. This also shines the spotlight on the sad but real situation which we often find in Namibia. When teenagers fall pregnant, the male absconds and the female is left to care for the infant. The result is the infant gets dumped at the village for Grandma to raise, while the delinquent carries on with her irresponsible lifestyle. I have personally come across instances where a single Grandmother has to take care of as many as twelve grandchildren between her four daughters, none of whom are older than 30.
The survey focused on attitudes and not so much on politics or economics so an awareness for the direct link between fertility and poverty, was not tested. But it is still significant that amongst the ages 16 to 34, about 27% of polled Namibians said their primary source of sexual information is their friends. This strongly suggests that traditional structures play a more important role in forming sexual attitudes, than peer exchange, or formal education. I believe this is an area that requires more testing of the evidence as I suspect it may just prove that traditional attitudes simply do not keep up with urban realities. Where fertility once was a benefit, helping to support the vigour and the influence of the tribe, in a modern urban setting, fertility is the major cause of poverty. And once poor and uneducated individuals are stuck in the poverty cycle, it is very difficult to escape without neglecting the children.
Almost universal across all respondents in all four countries, is the constant fear of contracting AIDS or falling pregnant.
The survey has a clear clinical bias. It does not investigate the economics of fertility or claim to investigate this angle. It is only about attitudes and behaviour. But it is enlightening to see how many young women fear falling pregnant, which, in my mind, has a definitive link to social attitudes, but also to the financial reality of bringing up a child.
I have argued earlier that there is a direct economic link between fertility and poverty. This view depends largely on an analysis of the poverty phenomenon, i.e. the inability of large families to join the development curve and pull themselves out of poverty. Do the poor chose to be poor through the large number of children they are not able to support, or are they poor because their ignorance based on traditional lifestyles burdens them with large families which they lack the means to maintain.
If a majority of the members of any society does not have cognitive control over this process, I believe there is more than one definition of unprotected sex and that pregnancy may be a far more serious threat to development than AIDS.
"In sub-Saharan Africa, current average fertility rates are approximately 5.1. The survey asked respondents "what's the ideal size for a family when it comes to children?". The overwhelming majority opted for no more than three children (84% in South Africa, 79% in Zimbabwe, 73% in Nigeria and 86% in Namibia).
If this is so, then why do we still sit with the thousands of unwanted and untended children running around in droves in Namibia's squatter camps and informal settlements?