Reproductive Choice Challenged in Tanzania

The President of the East African nation of Tanzania, John Magufuli, told a rally on Sunday, September 9, that Tanzanian couples should stop using contraceptives and have more babies for their country.

The surprising recommendation seemingly came out of nowhere. “Those going for family planning are lazy,” asserted Magufuli. “.  .  . they are afraid they will not be able to feed their children. They do not want to work hard to feed a large family and that is why they opt for birth controls and end up with one or two children only.”

Magufuli indicated that his opinion was formed during travel to other countries, including some in Europe. He claimed that contraception led to declining populations in those countries.

“You have cattle. You are big farmers. You can feed your children. Why then resort to birth control?” he asked the rally attendees. “This is my opinion. I see no reason to control birth in Tanzania.”

Actually, there are several reasons. Tanzania’s population, according to Worldometers, a website that compiles nations’ demographic information, is 59,449,107. Based on United Nations estimates, Worldometers says Tanzania’s population will increase to 138,081,621 by 2050. About 32.6% of the population is urban. The median age in Tanzania is 17.4 years. And Tanzania’s population density is 173 people per mile. More babies could make for some pretty crowded areas per mile. Assuming that Tanzania’s youthful median age means high fertility rates, couples having more babies shouldn’t be a problem.

However, producing more babies becomes a problem if couples can’t afford them. Babies cost money. They have to be fed, clothed, educated, and kept healthy through annual visits to doctors for examinations and immunization shots. MP Cedric Mwambe   who was recently quoted in Al Jazeera news, said the country’s health insurance is set up to only cover four children per family.

It’s a problem when governments start inserting themselves in family planning decisions, something that’s intensely personal and should only involve the couples. Having more babies often means fewer local and national resources available to ensure education for all who want it. It means women in particular are made to postpone or give up on ever having an education themselves, which would enable them to obtain jobs  and pursue careers in professions that pay well, and to contribute more money to their families’ expenses.

Thankfully, according to Tanzania’s Speaker of Parliament Job Ndugai, Magufuli’s remarks don’t represent the government’s position, or a new national policy. But it’s disturbing that Magufuli, who only has four children, would see fit to tell Tanzania’s couples, particularly the female half of those couples, to have more babies and stop using contraception. It’s another example of a male government official telling women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies.

If Magufuli ever decided to enshrine his opinions in government policy, he would be in violation of the Maputo Protocol. The protocol is part of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which was adopted by the African Union in 2003 at its summit in Maputo, Mozambique. The African Union ratified the protocol in 2005.

The protocol says that women have the right to decide whether to have children, how many they will have, and how much time they will give themselves between pregnancies if they decide to have more children. It says women have the right to choose any contraception method they want, and to be provided family planning education.

Family planning isn’t the only right under attack. On Monday, September 10, Tanzania’s parliament said female legislators can’t wear false eyelashes and/or fake fingernails. How fashion and appearance have anything to do with female legislators’ ability to draft and vote on new laws is beyond understanding.

There are African cultural traditions that just don’t work all that well in modern times, not in African countries or in nations of the African Diaspora. Men limiting women’s freedoms and choices just because they’re men, is one such tradition that should disappear, never to return.

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