The elephant in the room

If we’re all being honest with one another about the developing world, we cannot ignore the fact that poverty increases the birth rate and by doing so, exacerbates the problem. Today, I saw first-hand the magnitude of an exploding birth rate.

Uganda’s population has ballooned from seven to 28 million since independence and every year, that number increases by 3 percent. To put that in perspective, Canada’s population is roughly the same as Uganda’s and our annual population increase is just over 1 percent.

I spent an hour in a maternity ward that delivers 30,000 babies every year; roughly 3 per hour. It seemed like one every five minutes. Women are everywhere, in all stages of labour. Some on are on the floor, others on paper-thin mattresses, and a few lucky ones in a bed. None are in conditions we would consider acceptable.

Out in the hallway afterwards, the few of us who had never been here before fought back tears.

In addition to the roughly 30 obstetricians on staff, the hospital has over 200 midwives to handle the volume. By their own admission, they struggle simply to keep up. Post-partum, the mothers and their newborn babies leave the hospital anywhere between 12 and 24 hours. I cannot comprehend how they do so.

Family planning is available through obstetricians and midwives but the government also reminds the people that a growing population is critical to the country’s future. In addition to dealing with these mixed messages, most families here have more children than they can really support as insurance against the high child death rate. If you want three children, you’d better have seven babies so the thinking goes.

The thing is, this is a country that is investing heavily in education. Who knows, maybe they’ve got the right idea. Sure the population is growing, but the poverty rate has decreased from 31% to 20% in the last ten years and the literacy rate continues to climb and the child death rate is also falling. Perhaps the next generation, more educated and healthier than the last, will find that they no longer need to have additional children “just in case” and we’ll see the answer to the problem lies in better education and advanced healthcare.

I hope so. The alternative, as it is today, is simply heart breaking.

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