NRM plans to limit the right to have children in Uganda

Radio Munansi English Program on Jan, 27, 2013.

This is Eric Kashambuzi communicating from New York.

Greetings: fellow Ugandans at home and abroad, friends and well wishers.

By popular demand I have been asked to address the issue of NRM plan to limit population growth by legislation violating the right of Ugandans to have the number of children they need.

The subject was discussed on London-based Ngoma Radio on January 13 but it wasn’t exhaustive.

As a demographer, I have written and spoken a lot about population issues including birth control which is also referred to as family planning or reproductive health. Whichever word you use ultimately family size will decline.

Having children is a human right and coercive methods should not be used to limit it. Instead, information and facilities should be provided to enable couples decide on their own.

Until the story broke, NRM’s position was that Uganda still has plenty of arable land, meaning that more people could be accommodated. The president called on Ugandans to produce as many children as they needed and he would educate them for free. Based on this assurance, some leaders went ahead and expanded maternity wards or built new ones to cater for an increase in the number of pregnant women. Men were urged to do their job. If the law passes they can’t do it freely anymore as their leaders had suggested.

It is believed that along the way President Museveni changed his mind voluntarily or under pressure but didn’t tell Ugandans that he favored birth control to four children.

Unlike President Moi of Kenya who announced that civil servants should not exceed four children per couple, President Museveni did so indirectly. He agreed to provide free primary education to four children per family. What this meant was that if you produce children beyond four you are on your own as far as educating them is concerned. Then birth control facilities were provided to assist in preventing birth of another child.

It appears that Ugandans ignored this indirect advice and produced children that stayed at home as parents couldn’t afford tuition. That may explain why the government is forcing parents to send all their children to school and provide them with lunch or they will get punished.

In 2008, a National Population Policy was issued giving a wealth of information and a comprehensive strategy for reducing family size presumably without using coercive measures. The strategy stated inter alia:

1. The government should promote compulsory universal primary and post-primary education and training.

2. Promote enrolment and retention of girls and boys at all levels of education including technical and vocational training.

3. Promote school feeding program to reduce hunger and improve nutrition status, development and school performance of children.

4. Encourage appropriate cultivation and distribution of food to meet domestic demand and have surplus for sale.

5. Promote provision of family planning information and increased utilization of family planning.

If this strategy had been implemented, population growth would have declined considerably. But the strategy is gathering dust in the ministry of finance and economic planning.

What has caused Uganda’s population to grow at a relatively high level?

First, it is well known that poor, rural and subsistence based populations produce more children than rich and urban based populations. In Uganda depending upon how urban areas are defined, some 90 percent of Ugandans still live in rural areas and about 70 percent of them engage in subsistence agriculture. Ipso facto, fertility rate is high. Contrary to rosy government statistics, in Uganda according to more credible sources like the United Nations absolute poverty is still over 50 percent. Hence transforming rural economy and society including culture that favors large families especially boys will help reduce fertility. NRM government that has concentrated on the development of urban areas especially the capital city of Kampala that generates more than 70 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) has failed to transform the countryside and fertility is still relatively high. This is a leadership and policy rather than a population problem.

Second, it is also a fact that a society that experiences high mortality rates either as a result of war or pandemic diseases, the tendency is for survivors to produce more children to compensate for lost loved ones. Since 1971 Uganda has experienced human rights violations, destructive wars in Central, Northern and Eastern Uganda. It is therefore not surprising, that fertility in these areas has gone up. The survivors need to make up for lost ones. Reports show that fertility has increased in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide. According to the information at my disposal, an attempt to legislate against rapid population growth in Rwanda ran into difficulties presumably because of ethnic sensitivities.

Third, Educated couples have fewer children than uneducated ones. The lower the education level, the more the children.

Fourth, Uganda has been a magnet for immigrants and refugees particularly from neighboring countries that experienced economic and political hard times. Since NRM came to power, government policy on migration has been liberal or lenient allowing more people to come in than going out. NRM has consistently reported that Uganda still has plenty of arable land that is unutilized. Some people in the Great Lakes are encouraged to migrate to or seek refuge status in Uganda. Some Tutsi have trekked from as far as South Kivu as refugees or illegal immigrants. These immigrants and refugees have been allocated land sometimes displacing indigenous owners as we hear from Toro.

The problem is that we don’t know how many refugees and migrants are in Uganda and we don’t know how much they have contributed to Uganda’s population growth. Uganda Population report for 2010 did not provide information on migrants and refugees. Furthermore, it was reported that vital registration files that would provide information on births, deaths and marriages and therefore indigenous and foreign population were reported lost.

Therefore we have no way of telling the relative contribution to population growth by Ugandans and foreigners. All we know is that more people are coming in than going out. It would therefore be unfair to subject Uganda citizens by law to reduce their family size while allowing unlimited immigrants into the country. It is bound to raise serious questions.

We must also realize that rapid population decline has adverse ethical, social and economic effects.

First, when parents are forced to limit the number of children they are likely to prefer one sex over another. With advanced technology that tells the gender of the fetus, parents are likely to favor boys over girls as has happened in China.

Second, once a society has settled into a low level of population size it is very difficult to reverse it regardless of the incentives provided. That is why population in Europe, Japan and some in Southeast Asia is imploding. Uganda leaders must take short, medium and longer term implications into account because population decline is irreversible.

Third, birth control through contraception has serious side effects including loss of sexual urge that has led to domestic violence. Therefore this isn’t something that we should be rushing into given Uganda’s poor state of healthcare. Besides, not too long ago, state house stopped discussing population matters. And all of a sudden, the government is about to force Ugandans through legislation that no couple can produce more than three children.

Given the political, cultural, religious, regional, class and ethnic sensitivity of population, NRM government should implement the strategies in the 2008 Population Policy some of them outlined above that will reduce population growth voluntarily by for example keeping children in school longer and escaping teenage pregnancies and empowering women economically to control their reproductive behavior.

Family planning facilities should be provided and adequately staffed with experienced doctors to monitor and address side effects as and when they arise.

Meanwhile we should determine how many refugees and legal and illegal immigrants are in Uganda and their fertility rate to determine their relative contribution to Uganda’s population growth and what population policies to design.

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