Kenya this week joined the rest of the world in celebrating women on the occasion of the International Women’s Day. We can use this as an opportunity to evaluate and renew our commitment to improve the well-being of our women and girls.
Kenya stands to reap greatly from investing in girls by keeping them in school. Education plays an important role in giving women more control over many aspects of their lives, including how many children they have.
Studies show that an extra year of female schooling reduces fertility (i.e. children per woman) by up to 10 per cent. If we take the case of the Asian tigers, between the 1950s and the 1960s, a number of these countries invested greatly in their youth skills coupled with expanding access to voluntary family planning.
The result was unprecedented economic growth. Korea, for instance, saw its GDP grow by a 2,200 per cent between 1950 and 2008. During this period, South Korea’s fertility rate declined from around 6.2 to 1.3 children per woman.
With fewer births each year, the country’s young dependent population grew smaller in relation to the working-age population. With fewer people to support, Korea opened a window of opportunity for rapid economic growth, especially as social and economic policies were developed and investments made.
The top 10 countries with the highest fertility rates are all from sub-Saharan Africa — with Niger leading with a birth rate of 7.6, closely followed by South Sudan with 6.9. Most of these countries have some of the lowest GDPs in the world.
Even though Kenya has made progress in many of the indicators on sexual and reproductive health, including the reduction of its fertility rate to 3.9 children per woman, a lot more needs to be done. For instance, only six out of 10 currently married women are using a contraceptive method, whereas the use of modern methods stands at five in 10 women.
A recent national survey indicates that one in four married women of reproductive age in Kenya have an unmet need for family planning (they do not want to become pregnant but are not using contraception). This translates to about 1.4 million women. Unmet need is highest among those in informal settlements, less educated women, and those living in rural areas.
Public health facilities remain the major provider of contraceptive methods, with six out of 10 modern contraceptive users obtaining them from a government source. It is, therefore, critical that Kenya renews her commitment to the well-being of its women and girls by allocating more public resources for family planning and related services.
The strongest indication of government commitment is to allocate funds, specifically for family planning, from health budgets. Such funds will make it possible to hire staff to handle family planning services, conduct public education drives, and provide the family planning commodities required at health facilities.
This will help lower the barriers to family planning uptake — improving counselling services to reduce health concerns and fear of side effects, educating women about their bodies and when they are most at risk of getting pregnant, and breaking down cultural and social barriers to contraceptive use.
Rapid population growth stands in the way of attainment of critical development goals. Kenya’s population is reported as growing at an average of one million a year. At this rate, the population is projected to reach 77 million people by 2030. This is unsustainable and will greatly strain the country’s resources.
Investing in the reproductive health of women and girls is perhaps the most cost-effective investment we can make to ultimately achieve Vision 2030.
Dr Kamau is the country director, Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung Kenya [email protected]