The conversation about why poor African people have so many children is a recurring subject on African Twitter, but only a few contributors express concern about why this subject can be degrading to poor people. One such contributor is Twitter user @theZikora, who addresses the real economics surrounding childbirth.
“I don’t think you people get that poor children start contributing very early to the family finances. And that for parents that cannot afford staff, children are the next best alternative,” she says.
Zikora claims she “grew up in extreme poverty,” and explains poor people tend to have children at a higher rate than their wealthier counterparts because “it’s the only reasonable thing to do when you’re poor” and “it’s privilege that’s making you see children as an expense/inconvenience.”
Despite the recent news about the high African birthrate, the continent’s fertility rate has actually dropped, compared to where it was 40 years ago. Still critics are quick to disparage African women, and they generally limit their reasoning to a few peripheral factors such as ignorance, cultural norms, and personal and societal values.
The World Bank notes the relationship between increased economic growth and a decline in the rate of childbirth, however, and they suggest high birthrates in low-income households are more of an economic issue than a moral one. They are right about that.
Gender roles are a norm in lower class communities. African women are not only tasked with most domestic chores but also usually run small businesses, frequently depending on their own children for assistance, as they cannot afford staff. This is a characteristic of poor communities across the world. More children can mean more hands on deck, more income, and a foreseeable expansion of their businesses.
Poor families also frequently view children as a form of investment. They are not only expected to take on family businesses but create new opportunities as soon as they can walk. This is evidenced by the high rate of child labor in low-income communities. The girls, through marriage, bring income through “bride price” and the merging of families. Having several children increases the likelihood of these prospects.
Another overlooked reason poor people have more children is for a sense of security. Many poor families have no access to good health facilities, and they look to relatives to provide care when they are slowed by old age. This is, possibly, why poor African women continue to have more children well into their late thirties and early forties. The younger the child, the higher the chances of having them around during the onset of age-related ailments.
Poor African parents know the economics behind having children, and they think it a worthy venture, despite the judgement. Still, critics dehumanize poor people and dismiss them as bad decision makers with no idea of what they are doing and, therefore, need decisions to be made for them. But, as Zikora claims, poor African women choosing big families is simply a necessity. Research attributing increased economic growth to a lower birth rate is one-sided and does not consider the whole picture. In fact, it can apply the other way around under certain conditions.
Having a full understanding of the situation is important to reversing the African birth trend trapping women in poverty. The solution requires directing focus away from women driven by economic necessity and putting it on the government that’s responsible for economic growth. First and foremost, government should encourage more African women to get an education by providing scholarly opportunities and gender equality measures. This would promote skill acquisition among women, reduce female dependency on others and narrow the income gap between African men and women while increasing financial stability in African households.
The government must also make job availability a priority, particularly for young people. Africa has an alarming rate of unemployment in 2023, with women making up the highest percentage of the unemployed. This is directly linked to the education gender gap in Africa.
Reliable health care should also be accessible and affordable, if not free. Healthcare should be a right to which everyone is entitled, regardless of socioeconomic status. As of now, it is barely reliable, and more of a luxury for the rich.
Above all, critics should recognize their personal privilege of being able to have children for reasons beyond desperation and survival. Only then can we approach the subject with the empathy it deserves.