Niger, a landlocked country in the Sahel region of Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. With high prevalence of child marriage and early childbearing, Niger currently has a fertility rate of approximately 7 children per woman, which translates into the highest population growth rate (3.8%) in the world. Its population is projected to increase from approximately 23 million in 2019, to around 30 million by 2030, and reach 70 million by 2050.
What are the economic and social implications of these demographic numbers? There is a consensus among development practitioners that high fertility constrains development progress in poor countries, which also have low human development indicators. According to a 2010 World Bank study, high fertility – defined as five or more births per woman during the reproductive ages of 15-49 years – poses health risks for children and their mothers, detracts from human capital investment, and slows economic growth. Consider the following rather alarming statistics in Niger:
- While the average growth rate of the Nigerien economy for the last three years (2016-2018) looks reasonable at 5.4%, when converted into per capita growth, the number is small at 1.5%.
- Poverty rates have fallen in Niger, but due to rapid increases in population, the number of poor people has increased. Between 2005 and 2014, while the incidence of income poverty fell from about 54 to about 45%, the absolute number of people living in poverty rose from 6.8 million in 2005 to 8.2 million in 2014.
- With the number of children increasing by 750,000 per year, the state is burdened with much higher demands for investments in education and health services, that are in limited supply and of generally low quality. For example, circa 2019
- Only around 50%of children receive a complete set of vaccinations, 44% of under-fives are stunted, and over 33% are underweight.
- About seven out of 10 Nigeriens are illiterate, only four out of 10 girls in primary school reach sixth grade, and learning outcomes are among the weakest in the region.
- It is therefore not surprising that since 2010, Niger has ranked near to last in the United Nations Human Development Index.
In Niger, child marriage has been misconstrued as a path to economic prosperity, as well as an increase in social status. Having multiple children has often been identified as a way to secure inheritance and wealth, and thus, gain autonomy and power within a community.
Can Niger get out of the demographic trap – defined as a situation where rapid population growth exceeds and overwhelms economic growth? Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia and Thailand are among those countries that were able to reduce high fertility rates. Bangladesh’s fertility reduction has been well studied.
It seems Niger has made a start in the right direction. In 2014, Niger adopted the institutional framework to promote fertility reduction by adhering to international conventions to abolish child marriage, which is linked with a higher number of children. With assistance from development partners, several projects have been implemented to improve access to education and reproductive health services and raise awareness among families and communities about the harmful impacts of child marriage. As studies have shown that the greatest impact on reducing high fertility occurs when a woman obtains secondary level education, top government officials and important public figures (e.g., village chiefs, imams) have promoted and led campaigns to promote girls’ education and reduction of child marriages.
More recently, Niger has adopted bolder reforms in tackling high fertility. The Nigerian Government (in partnership with the World Bank Group) has made a start to tackle at the roots harmful practices resulting from social conventions and norms. Legal reforms have been adopted to remove mandatory authorizations from parents/husbands for married adolescent girls to access family planning. Married and/or pregnant adolescent girls, who were not allowed, can now return to school. Child Protection Committees – a community structure at the village level – have been institutionalized to promote, safeguard and fulfill the right of girls and protect them from child marriage. The committees consist of elected representatives from the communes/villages, health workers, school teachers, and traditional/religious leaders. The participation of the latter is important as they are the ones who have been performing child marriages, and they are the community/village elders who also prescribe which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. There has also been a big recent push to mobilize and coordinate efforts. The government has created a high-level Gender Committee – comprising both public and non-public entities (international agencies and non-governmental organizations) – that is involved in gender reforms.
Only time will tell whether Nigerien people will successfully address what appears to be the most important development challenge for their country. With good policies, commitment, and endurance, there is hope that Niger can continue to move forward on the development path, reduce fertility and improve economic prospects of its women, create jobs for its people and reap the rich demographic dividend.
- World Bank (2019). “Economic Impacts of Gender Inequality in Niger”
- World Bank (2010). “Determinants and Consequences of High Fertility: A Synopsis of the Evidence”
- Government of Bangladesh (2015). “Fertility Determinants in Bangladesh: Trends and Determinants” Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Ministry of Planning.