Nowhere in the world is the population growing as fast as in Niger. It was 3.5 million half a century ago; now it stands at 20 million. Many steadfastly refuse to talk or think about contraception.
In the Banifandou health center, a clinic in Niger's capital Niamey, a baby is screaming at the top of his lungs. He has just been inoculated - given a jab - and is unused to needles and syringes. But little Halimatou on the other hand need have no fear of the needle, because her mother, Mariama Souley, has come to the hospital for a very different reason: to pick up contraceptives. She's on the pill. "The last time I came here, I got three months' supply," she said. "I've used them all up and I need some more." The nurse records this in a small notebook. The women can also chose other means of contraception, such as implants which are inserted under the skin or the coil.
Mariam Souley prefers to stick with the pill which she has been taking for years. "I don't have any health problems, " she said. She also doesn't have any family issues either. "Of course, I spoke to my husband about it. He approves of me coming here. He was the one who decided that I should come here in the first place," she said.
Such a pragmatic attitude to contraception is far from common in Niger. Many couples just don't want to talk about family planning and the use of contraceptives is a taboo subject. Sociologist Issaka Maga Hamidou, an expert on demographics who lectures at the Abdou Moumouni University in Niamey, views Mariam Souley and her husband as a modern couple, cautious and circumspect. Very few couples think or act as they do, he said. The statistics for Niger are alarming. "Every woman has an average of 7.6 children. Our population is growing annually by 3.9 percent. That is a world record." They may be fluctuations in the data, but in population league tables Niger is always close to the top.
Niger is a landlocked West African country and 80 percent of its territory is covered by the Sahara Desert. With a growing population, more young people will be looking for employment. Better economic performance is needed to supply more formal sector jobs. But there are too few apprenticeships or training schemes for the young. There is also a lack of hospitals, schools and affordable housing.
The increase in Niger's population should be at the top of the country's political agenda. A run-off in the presidential elections is due on March 20. But both the incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou and his rival Hama Amadou are ignoring the issue. There is no indication that the state is preparing for a massive population growth. "Niger is a poor country. That's why it is so difficult to find a solution," said Hamidou.
Explosive population growth and terrorism
Yet when in Niger, it's difficult to pretend the problem isn't there. On the streets of Niamey, young people are hunting for work as day laborers, struggling to make ends meet. Fertile land on the outskirts of the city is being used for building, even though the city's expanding population urgently needs food. In rural areas, where 80 percent of the population reside, the situation is even more precarious. The Diffa region, which borders on Nigeria, has been commandeered by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram as a safe haven. This has driven away tens of thousands of people who once lived there. Observers believe that the abundance of young men without jobs or prospects has turned the region into a promising recruiting ground for Boko Haram.
Birth control regulations could help in the long term. But Mahazou Mahaman, who runs Animas-Sutura, an NGO devoted to family planning, is skeptical.
"We [as Nigeriens] want to have children, because of social pressures, because it is expected of us. In our culture, people are judged by the number of children they have," he said.
In rural areas, children are not just a status symbol, there are also a source of labor. For their parents, they are a sort of life insurance; the ones who will provide for them in old age.
There is also a lack of awareness of the alternatives. Many are unfamiliar with the basics of contraception and outside the cities, the nearest clinic is just too far away. Mahaman said community religious leaders must also share some of the blame. "They say that contraception is an attempt by the West to impede the country's development."
Eighty percent of Niger's population are Muslims and many reject family planning. "Even though family planning can improve the health of both mother and child," Mahaman said. He believes that this is the sort of argument with which he can encourage people to act more responsibly in future.