New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is on the road again, and this time his travels are taking to him Central Africa, “…where it’s easy to see firsthand how breakneck population growth is linked to poverty, instability and conflict.” Kristof, who is traveling between Liberville, Gabon, and Luanda, Angola, is on the road with a 19-year-old university student, Mitch Smith, who won a contest that permitted him to accompany Kristoff on his journey.
I don’t know how much Mitch is learning, but Kristof ‘s most recent New York Times column, written from the Congo, gives his readers some idea of the challenges facing family planning in Africa. Here are some of his observations:
In almost every village we stop in, we chat with families whose huts overflow with small children — whom the parents can’t always afford to educate, feed or protect from disease.
Here in Kinshasa, we met Emilie Lunda, 25, who had nearly died during childbirth a few days earlier. Doctors saved her life, but her baby died. And she is still recuperating in a hospital and doesn’t know how she will pay the bill.
“I didn’t want to get pregnant,” Emilie told us here in the Congolese capital. “I was afraid of getting pregnant.” But she had never heard of birth control.
In rural parts of Congo Republic, the other Congo to the north, we found that even when people had heard of contraception, they often regarded it as unaffordable.
Most appalling, all the clinics and hospitals we visited in Congo Republic said that they would sell contraceptives only to women who brought their husbands in with them to prove that the husband accepted birth control.
As Kristof’s column makes clear, a lack of contraceptives is not the only reason why fertility rates have remained high in some of the least developed nations in the world. Women who may want to have fewer children still have to overcome a host of obstacles including lack of information, misinformation, and husbands who see children as a sign of their virility. That’s why the education of girls and the empowerment of women is just as important as the supply of contraceptives.
He concludes that, “What’s needed is a comprehensive approach to assisting men and women alike with family planning — not just a contraceptive dispensary.” None of this should detract from efforts to expand U.S. international family planning assistance; the need is certainly there. But it also points to the importance of keeping girls in schools and changing social norms, like child marriage.
Kristof today is still boucing over “impossible roads in the region,” but when he returns from Africa, he should start walking the halls of Congress and alerting members to the fierce urgency of what needs to be done for family planning in developing countries.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President