In the past few months there has been a flurry of meetings in the country and articles in Uganda media about the dangers of Uganda’s population ‘explosion’. All the articles I have read are one-sided. They are directly or indirectly urging the government to coerce Ugandans into defusing a demographic ‘bomb’ through birth control which should be stepped up immediately. If my understanding of what is going on is correct, Ugandans are being treated like a herd of Zebras that have no capacity to adjust to their environment. If you lock them up in an enclosed area and leave them there, Zebras will reproduce to the limit of their biological capacity, eat all the grass and drink all the water and then perish through hunger and thirst. To prevent this catastrophe, Zebras need to be helped to control their fertility to match the available pasture and water. Similarly, Uganda authorities are being urged to act quickly and help or force Ugandans to adjust their fertility through birth control to match the number of mouths to feed with available goods and services. In my view, going down this road will create serious problems.
First, Ugandans will not accept to be treated like animals. In fact fertility has already begun to decline from seven to six children per woman. Although this may be slow, it is a move in the right direction and it should be acknowledged and appreciated. Those who support birth control do not even refer to this positive change which is regrettable.
Second, population growth should not be used as a scapegoat when Uganda runs into problems. Amin who had rejected birth control when he was still popular authorized its immediate reintroduction when the economy turned sour after the expulsion of Asians. He blamed Ugandans for producing beyond the means at Uganda’s disposal. Museveni who is known for favoring population growth until it has reached an optimal level is reported to have complained that unemployment was high because Ugandans were producing too many children. Ugandans who are rational people will not embark on a massive birth control exercise because a leader has complained about too many children.
Third, it becomes difficult for ordinary people to accept to reduce their family size when those who are advocating smaller families have large ones and are living comfortably.
Fourth, when a government is forced it may take decisions that are un-enforceable. In Kenya implementing birth control in the 1960s so soon after the Mau Mau guerrilla war was not possible. However, Kenyatta accepted in order to get foreign assistance but his government did little by way of implementation. When the international community continued to complain that Kenyans were producing too many children, Moi declared that any civil servant who produces more than four children would lose their jobs was not implemented because there was no political will to do so. It is hoped that Uganda leaders will not be pushed into a situation where they will fix the number of children Uganda couples must not exceed because implementing that decision will be difficult if not impossible.
Fifth, political developments are increasingly becoming conducive to large family size and by extension large ethnic or tribal population numbers. Politics in Uganda has become the game of numbers. The ethnic group that has many people is getting more schools, more clinics, more members of parliament and more positions in the government because it can flex its political muscle if its demands are not met. With such benefits why would any group want to reduce its population size? Those in a minority whether in leadership positions or not are feeling the disadvantages of that demographic status. Given that Uganda politics has been based on religion notwithstanding NRM efforts to separate religion from politics, it will be difficult to use church leadership to champion birth control. Besides given Uganda’s high mortality rate due to war and disease and high dependence on children in sickness and old age there is no attraction to birth control. Ugandans are watching to see which group (religious or ethnic) is increasing in numbers through high fertility and/or immigration.
To avoid these difficulties, it is better to take a non-controversial path with longer term benefits. The 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development shifted the focus from numbers to persons and de-emphasized quick outcomes of family planning. There was a consensus that what lowers birth rates is education of girls, economic independence and political empowerment of women. In Kerala province of India and China birth rates declined from 3.0 percent to 1.8 percent between 1979 and 1990. In China they declined from 2.8 percent to 2.0 percent during the same period. The remarkable success in Kerala and in some regions of China was due in large part to high levels of women education, high life expectancy and involvement in economic activities.
Uganda authorities need to do all it can to step up the education of girls beyond primary level and empower women economically and politically to be able to manage their reproduction lives. Poor and hungry girls and women trapped in subsistence agriculture have no incentive to delay marriage or reduce fertility. The champions of birth control in Uganda need to put more pressure on the government and development partners to provide means for girls’ education and women empowerment to speed up voluntarily the rate of fertility decline.