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One of the biggest problems facing the developing world is how to keep population growth in check. Yet the governments of countries with deep traditions of having large families are reluctant to tell families to have fewer children, which is why the West African nation of Niger, which has the highest birthrate in the world, is trying a softer approach - what it calls the School for Husbands. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Niger is one of the poorest nations in Africa. Most of the country is covered in deserts and has few natural resources. What it does have a lot of is children. Half the population is under the age of 15. But 92-year-old Maidanda Saidou says trying to convince people in Niger to have fewer kids runs counter to tradition.
MAIDANDA SAIDOU: (Through translator) In our culture, in the past having a large family was seen as a gift of God, a great thing.
BEAUBIEN: Saidou is the sultan or local chief of the region of Dosso.
SAIDOU: (Through translator) This means if you had many kids, you are among the gifted ones. So it's seen as something positive, and that's in contrast to what is needed for development because the fast-growing population really hampers the development of the country.
BEAUBIEN: Niger's population is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. The average woman here will have seven children. So almost a decade ago, the ministry of health in Niger, along with the United Nations, decided to try to slow this down by focusing on men. That's when the School for Husbands was born.
In the village of Chadakori, 12 men sit in a circle under a tin roof debating the benefits of contraception. Many of the men wear long, colorful tunics. Their flip-flops are scattered on the outer edge of the carpet.
The School for Husbands is more like a book club than a classroom. It's a forum to talk about topics men often shy away from - prenatal care, birth control, breast feeding. If these measures don't produce change in Niger, the country faces a major crisis. Most people in Niger, roughly 80 percent of the population, are subsistence farmers. In a place where most of the land is desert and there are few other options to make a living, a population boom is a huge threat.
ALI HASSAN: Now people are just trying to survive. And the government's only priority is to slow down the population growth.
BEAUBIEN: Ali Hassan is the assistant country representative for the United Nations Population Fund in Niger. He's standing in a dusty field of millet. Millet is the staple grain of the country. In some parts of the field, the tall, green stalks sway above Hassan's head. Elsewhere, the plants brush his knees. And in other spots, there's just bare, dry dirt.
HASSAN: This is a typical field at this period of time. But they are hoping that they will have a good crop this year.
BEAUBIEN: Hoping because they don't have much other choice.
HASSAN: In the past, they used to use a specific place and when the productivity goes down, they'd move to another place. Now they no longer have that possibility. They remain in the same place and the productivity's just going down and down and down.
BEAUBIEN: And the great fear here is with not much more land that people could be cultivating and the population is expected to double in the next 20 years, that looks like a big problem facing this country - yes?
HASSAN: That's the central problem with this country because the demographic growth - even if people want to work, they will not have the space to work.
BEAUBIEN: A quarter century ago, Niger had fewer than 8 million citizens. Now it has nearly 18 million and it remains amongst the least developed nations on earth. The School for Husbands focuses on the benefits of contraception, delaying marriage for teenage girls and spacing the births of siblings. At a local health clinic in the southern Niger village of Guidan Roumdji, the lone doctor, Rabo Sleymane, says the program is having an impact.
RABO SLEYMANE: (Through translator) After six months of the school starting, key maternal health indicators started to go up.
BEAUBIEN: He says soon after the School for Husbands was formed in his village, more women started asking about family planning. There are now Schools for Husband opening across Niger.
While overall rates of birth control use are still quite low, health ministry officials say they are increasing. A decade ago before the school started, just 5 percent of women in Niger reported using contraception. Now that figure is up to 13 percent. Niger's birth rate hasn't yet fallen significantly, but government officials say they're confident that over time it will.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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