The problems of family planning in Nigeria

Faith and tradition favour high fertility. Education pulls the other way

Not everyone thinks birth control is a blessing. Boko Haram, a jihadist group that terrorises north-eastern Nigeria, deems artificial contraception to be a product of infidel learning, and therefore forbidden. Its ideologues also believe that females should avoid school, marry early (sometimes while still children) and have lots of babies. In the dwindling areas the jihadists control, women have no choice.

Even outside those areas, contraception is controversial. Boko Haram’s ideology didn’t spring from nowhere. Many Nigerian Muslims believe that pills and condoms are part of a Western plot to stop Muslims from multiplying. And in poor, rural areas centuries of experience have taught people that having lots of children makes economic sense. They can be put to work in the fields, they will provide for their parents in old age and, given high rates of infant mortality, if you don’t have several you may end up with none.

So the government in Kaduna, a majority-Muslim state north of the capital, Abuja, does not encourage people to have fewer children. That would be politically toxic. But it does offer free contraception, and suggest that women might wish to pause between pregnancies. It also promotes girls’ education—something that has caused fertility rates to fall more or less everywhere it has been tried. As recently as 2008, women in Kaduna expected to have 6.3 babies each over a lifetime. By 2013 this had fallen to 4.1, well below the national average of 5.7 that year.

When Alheri Yusuf first heard about family planning from a relative, she hesitated. “I thought she didn’t want me to give my husband more children,” says the 33-year-old mother of four, as she waits for a contraceptive hormonal injection at a hospital in Kaduna. Then she realised that spacing her children would give her time to recover from childbirth.

No one knows how many Nigerians there are. The World Bank says there were 182m in 2015, but this estimate is based on the 2006 census, which was probably inflated (politicians typically exaggerate the count to grab more parliamentary seats and government money for their regions). Most observers agree, though, that Nigeria’s population is growing at a cracking 3% a year. Many Nigerians see this as a source of national pride and strength. But the economy ought to grow faster than the population, and last year it actually shrank, thanks to cheap oil.

To be prosperous as well as populous, Nigeria needs to educate its people better. This would also curb population growth, since well-schooled women tend to have fewer babies. In a sparse classroom in the city of Zaria, 15 adolescent girls swathed in white hijabs learn about reproduction, financial literacy and how to say no. The course is run by a local NGO and paid for by the UN Population Fund. The girls say they want fewer children than when they started the sessions in September, so that they can educate them well.

Most girls in the programme will finish secondary school and delay childbirth (previous cohorts wed an average of 2.5 years later than peers). In places where female literacy has improved, child marriage and maternal mortality have duly fallen.

Within Nigerian Islam, a debate rages between modernisers and obscurantists. The former may be winning. Lamido Sanusi, the Emir of Kano and a senior Muslim leader, has spoken out against child marriage, and proposes a legal minimum age (there is currently none) of 18. Yusuf Ali, a cleric who joined a debate convened by the emir, married his first wife when she was 14 and he was 26. But Mr Ali, who has four wives and 38 children, now thinks girls should marry “above the age of 15”. He also favours family planning, so long as couples use withdrawal rather than modern contraception. He even agrees that girls should go to school.