Bridging Education, Contraception, and Climate Change in Niger
In the mid-1990s, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sabon Gida, a village in Niger -- a West African country consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the world. The nearest health clinic was a 1.5 hour walk over sandy paths. I lived in a mud hut, learned a local language, made lasting friendships, and did interesting work. More than 20 years later, two memories stand out from those years: It was incessantly hot and I went to a lot of baptisms.
While Niger has changed a lot since then, women continue to have a lot of children and it’s getting even hotter and drier. Niger’s fertility rate is the world’s highest at an average of 7.3 children per woman (compared to an average of 4.6 on the African continent and 2.5 globally). In 1996, Niger’s population was approximately nine million; now it is more than 20 million and by 2050, Niger’s population is projected to more than triple to 65.6 million unless the birth rate slows substantially. Unfortunately, slowing the birth rate seems unlikely– currently only 14 percent of married women in Niger use a modern form of contraception, compared to an average of 30 percent across Africa and 55 percent globally. And, despite cultural norms that value large families, almost 21 percent of sexually active women of reproductive age in Niger have an unmet need for a modern form of contraception. It’s essential to make a range of voluntary methods of contraception available and accessible so that women and their families can live healthy, productive lives.
Early marriage also plays a key role in birth rates by extending the length of childbearing years, and posing high health risks for women. In Niger, over 75 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthday. I saw this up close when I lived there. Salama, a young bride who was pregnant for the first time, lived on the edge of the village in an impeccably clean house. I used to go talk with her when I needed a quiet escape from the bustle of village life. Like many Nigerien women wed too young, she died during childbirth from laboring too long to deliver a baby too large for her still developing adolescent body. In fact, Save the Children rated Niger the worst place in the world to be a mother.
If Salama had been able to attend school instead of marrying in her early teens, she may have benefited from a range of positive economic and health outcomes; each additional year in school increases an individual’s wages, on average, by 10 percent. Sadly, when I lived in Sabon Gida, there weren’t any primary schools in the village of 800 people.
Meanwhile, Niger is acutely vulnerable to climate change. It’s a large country, approximately twice the size of Texas, but only about 13 percent of the country is suitable for agriculture, and even that land is dry for more than half of the year. Families are having a harder time each year eking out enough food from the parched land, and it’s difficult to provide enough pasture and water for their livestock, too.
How does family planning fit into the climate change picture? Research supports the linkage by showing that fewer people in the world could lead to substantial long-term climate-related benefits by lowering carbon emissions. Approximately 214 million women globally would like to avoid pregnancy but do not currently use modern contraception. Meeting their needs by providing voluntary, rights-based family planning could be a global hat trick—for women, their children, and the climate. And for women and their households, the additional health, education, and economic benefits that accompany family planning would reduce their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and build their resilience. Recent research from Malaysia found that just living near family planning clinics increased girls’ educational attainment by an average of 0.5 years; supporting girls’ ability to enroll and remain in school through the secondary level has been identified by experts as a key evidence-based “high impact practice” in family planning.
Recently, more scientists and governments have made the connection between population growth and global carbon emissions and have recognized the multiple benefits that family planning provides including on educational attainment. And, in 2017, a landmark book, Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, identified 100 substantive ways for people, governments, and companies to reduce the pace of global warming, and found that a combination of girls’ education and family planning was the number one solution to slow climate change.
I believe that integrated, equity-based solutions that link girls’ education, family planning, and climate change will have a magnifier effect on improving the lives of girls, women, their families, and their communities, ensuring that girls like Salama have a brighter future.
Kristen P. Patterson is program director for People, Health, Planet at Population Reference Bureau.
*This is an updated and expanded version of an article that originally ran on the PRB website and the Ms. Magazine blog in late 2015.