Why has birth control become a priority in Rwanda and Uganda?

Whatever justification is advanced for birth control, such as eradication of maternal and infant mortality, the ultimate outcome is reduction in population size at family, community, tribal and national level. Because of cultural, ethnic and religious sensitivity associated with birth control, different terms have been used such as family planning and reproductive health and rights. However, they all end up in reducing population size.

The common message conveyed by Malthus and his heirs is that poor people (regardless of how they got trapped into poverty) wherever they live produce more children than they are able to support. Therefore they must reduce the size of their families through family planning.

In Rwanda and Uganda, a combination of wars, endemic diseases and AIDS pandemic has raised mortality rates. In Uganda, for example, life expectancy declined from 47.0 years in 1980-85 to 41.0 years in 1990-95. At the same time, thanks to western donations, the economies of Rwanda and Uganda are growing faster than population growth. Consequently, birth control should not be a priority needing urgent implementation.

The problem is that in both Rwanda and Uganda the benefits of economic growth have been tilted heavily in favor of minority Batutsi in Rwanda and minority Bahororo (Batutsi from Rwanda) and Bahima in Uganda (so-called pastoralists). Majority Bahutu in Rwanda and majority non-Bahororo and non-Bahima in Uganda (so-called agriculturalists) have continued to live in poverty or got poorer. This has been done in large part through concentration of economic activities in urban areas especially the capital cities of Kigali in Rwanda and Kampala in Uganda where relatives of ruling classes led by Kagame and Museveni live. The rest have been herded in rural areas and left to fend for themselves in economies driven by so-called market forces.

Demographically rich people produce fewer children than the poor. The lifestyle of the rich together with lower child mortality rate reduces the need for many children. On the other hand, because of high child mortality and dependence on children in old age, poor people produce many children. Thus, Bahutu in Rwanda and non-Bahororo and non-Bahima families in Uganda are producing more children than the rich ruling classes. Kagame and Museveni who have governed at gun point disguised as democracy know full well that in the end larger ethnic groups, however impoverished, cannot be ignored forever. Numbers matter: hence birth control of poor families that constitute majority in Rwanda and Uganda. In Rwanda birth control has been championed basically by foreign advisers, in Uganda by Ugandans generally.

Instead of advocating equitable distribution of economic growth benefits and education of girls that lead to fertility reduction, foreign advisers have focused on contraception in Rwanda where average fertility rate is six children per woman. The 1994 genocide has also been attributed to overpopulation. The analysis has led to birth control in large poor families as the solution to rapid population growth. Although Bahutu are not specifically targeted, they constitute the overwhelming majority of poor people that produce many children. However, many people consulted in and outside Rwanda are convinced that birth control is targeting Bahutu.

Using like-minded Rwandans, foreign advisers have pushed for limiting family size to three children, with severe punishment for non-compliance. Contraception has risen steeply. If it turns out that Bahutu are being targeted there could be allegations of ‘triple’ genocide in Rwanda.

Until recently, official position favored more children because Uganda had not yet reached an optimal human level for sustained economic development. However, during a Labor Day speech in 2003, President Museveni announced that high unemployment and poverty were associated with rapid population growth. Since that time, demographic studies have been conducted into fertility rates, dependency ratios and contraceptive use. These studies have barely touched on mortality and migration trends that also influence population change.

Like in Rwanda, instead of focusing on equitable distribution of income and education of girls and empowerment of women that enhance demographic transition (from high death rate and high birth rate to low death rate and low birth rate), neo-Malthusian Ugandans have focused on birth control among poor women. Debates and articles have been one dimensional in support of birth control.

The 2010 report on the state of population in Uganda shows bias in favor of birth control very clearly. For example, the report focuses on high total fertility rate, high dependency ratio, low contraceptive prevalence use and high unmet needs. There is hardly information on mortality and migration rates. The recent revelation that information on births, deaths and migration was stolen between 2007 and 2009 has raised questions about the validity and usefulness of the report serving as a source of information for planning purposes.

All in all, the determination to stay in power in perpetuity by minority ruling classes in Rwanda and Uganda is the primary reason for embarking on birth control to limit the size of poor majority populations in the two countries. Struggle to retain power has been disguised by using subtle and humane language of reducing infant and maternal mortality.

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