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Family size: why some Nigerian men want more children

Men largely determine the fertility rate in Nigeria. These men are drumming for dancers at a festival. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

By Ololade Grace Adewole, Kehinde Oluwaseun Omotoso and Sola S. Asa

Fertility levels remain relatively high in Nigeria. The rate is slightly over five children per woman. This is one of the highest fertility rates in the world. With almost seven children per woman, Niger has the highest rate in the world, followed by Mali.

Many studies have suggested targeting men in family planning programmes to reduce fertility levels, particularly in patriarchal societies. This is because men wield excessive power that determines contraception use or non-use.

In Nigeria, which is a patriarchal society, the influence of men on fertility behaviour is seen in many ways. For instance, men usually make decisions about the number of children a woman will have.

We conducted research exploring the contextual factors that influence the attitudes of men towards fertility. These include sociocultural norms, beliefs, preferences and perceptions. Our study involved a range of different ethnic groups in Nigeria.

We collected qualitative data on men’s perceptions about the number of children people were expected to have in their community and the reasons for this.

We also sought to establish who usually wanted to have a high number of children in the family and who determined the number of children among couples.

Nigeria’s population growth is not sustainable. Population growth places increasing pressures on resources – such as water, forests and land – contributing to climate change and challenging environmental sustainability.

Among the 10 largest countries worldwide, Nigeria is growing the most rapidly. Nigeria’s population, currently the world’s seventh largest, is projected to surpass that of the United States and become the third largest country in the world shortly before 2050. Nigeria struggles with its population growth.

Our findings showed some of the beliefs and perceptions influencing male fertility in Nigeria. These include religion, polygamy, socioeconomic status, government policy, peer pressure, culture and sex preference. They also vary across ethnic groups.

Thus, there is a need to take into consideration the unique community structures in subsequent population-oriented social policy reviews and implementation to tackle high fertility behaviour in Nigeria.

Beliefs and perceptions

We used qualitative data that involved focus group discussions (12 in all) and in-depth interviews (18 in all) from Osun, Enugu and Zamfara. We interviewed men from the country’s three major ethnic groups – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.

Across the three states the men involved in the discussions showed that they were knowledgeable about fertility. There were hardly any variations across the major ethnic groups. All placed a high value on large family size – more than four children per woman.

We asked the men how many children they wanted to have. Some wanted to have three or four, while some said such the decision was based on God or Allah’s wish for them.

For the most part, the reasons given for wanting a large number of children were to populate the earth, help with farm work, and to provide old-age support, honour and prestige.

A number of beliefs and perceptions that affected decisions around fertility were mentioned.

Religion was one. Religion plays a prominent role in how many children families have Nigeria. About 50% of Nigerians identify themselves as Muslims, while 48.1% identify as Christians. Islam promotes large families and encourages early marriage and a polygamous family system. Christianity prohibits the most effective forms of contraception and does not support abortion.

Polygamy: This is more prevalent in the northern region, where more than a third of married women reported having one or more co-wives. Through polygamy, the man will have multiple children from many wives.

Socioeconomic status: The economic situation of men was a determining factor in fertility behaviour. An example of this was that if the proportion of men with a nonprofessional occupation (like farming) in the community was high, there was a higher likelihood that the men wanted larger families. If the proportion of men who had at least secondary education in the community was low, they were more likely to have larger families. Peer pressure was another factor.

Government policy: Some mentioned that this encouraged families to have at most four children. Nigeria launched a policy of four children per woman in 1988 to stem population growth.

Culture: Culture plays a prominent role. Most cultures in Nigeria encourage many children. No culture supports having only a few. Sex preference, to a large extent, also influences the number of children. A higher premium is placed on male children. This encourages families to have more children until they have boys.

The respondents also articulated the effects of having a large family. These included being unable to adequately cater for the children. This could lead to children being socially disruptive, malnutrition, as well as high maternal and under-five mortality rates. Others mentioned strain on social and health infrastructure, discrimination against girls’ education, youth delinquency such as teenage pregnancy and sexual vices.

Some of the respondents gave reasons for a small family. The main ones included being able to give children quality education and to avoid poverty.

Next steps

To control population growth the government needs to design more interventions to improve education, employment opportunities and the economy.

For example, our study shows that the more the men were educated, the fewer the children they wanted to have.

There is also a need for steps to improve the socioeconomic status of men. The government needs to create more job opportunities. Research has shown that areas of high unemployment rates and low socioeconomic status family sizes are larger.

In addition, the government must run campaigns and programmes explaining the social and economic consequences of high rates of fertility.

Finally, the government must take steps to break down the country’s patriarchal family system so that women are given some autonomy. This can be driven by strengthening and promoting social policies that benefit girls and women such as access to education, employment opportunities and political positions.

Ololade Grace Adewole, Assistant Chief Planning Officer, National Centre for Technology Management, Obafemi Awolowo University; Kehinde Oluwaseun Omotoso, DST/NRF SARCHl Chair in Social Policy, University of South Africa, and Sola S. Asa, Associate Professor of Demography and Social Statistics, Obafemi Awolowo University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

African Thinker

A Pan-African magazine of ideas and commentary on issues shaping Africa’s future.

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