A Changing Mindset on Childbirth in Western Africa

Americans are a bit fascinated with polygamy. Big Love, Sister Wives – it seems men with multiple spouses are getting quite the media foothold in the United States.

In Senegal, polygamy is a daily, accepted reality. But ask a Senegalese person why it’s so commonly practiced here, and the most common answer you’ll receive is that it’s done for one primary reason: for procreation.

Children are revered here in West Africa. Having a huge brood is smiled upon, regardless of the resources one has to provide for a plethora of offspring. If there isn’t enough food to go around, extended family members have no problem pitching in. In general, the more kids, the better.

That’s why I’m curious to see how Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade’s recent statements on family planning will resonate – if at all – with the public.

“We cannot impose on our people contraceptive methods, but should explain to convince them that they are responsible for the number of children they give birth to in terms of providing them with quality education, health, shelter and all the necessary basic needs in life,” President Wade said at a recent International Conference on Family Planning in Dakar.

My outsider’s viewpoint is that it’s going to take much more than just education and availability of contraceptives for family planning in Senegal to change or happen at all. It’s going to take a true cultural and mental shift, especially in rural places far outside the capital city.

The United Nations is determined to make it happen, though. The U.N.’s Population Fund is getting a grant-funded boost that will give underprivileged women in Africa contraceptive implants. The U.N. estimates the project will help prevent some two million unwanted pregnancies. But in Senegal, the pregnancies often aren’t unwanted (and despite the poverty, the quality of life isn’t nearly as bad here as in other African nations).

Do you think family-planning initiatives will have success in Africa? Why or why not?