Controlling Women’s Desires in Kenya

african-motherThe Kenyan government recently outlined a new brand of coercive population control. Unlike China’s policy which uses coercion to control the number of births, Kenya is trying to control population earlier in the reproductive process by changing women’s desires to have children.

In the early 1980’s, the average woman in Kenya had 8 children. In the last 30 years, fertility rates fell by 44% to 4.5 children, but this fall has not been enough for the Kenyan National Council for Population and Development (NCPD) or the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which work closely together. In two governmental papers, the Kenyan government, in conjunction with the UNFPA, outlined a plan to reduce fertility by an additional 42% to 2.6 children per woman by the year 2030.

Accepted demographic research indicates that fertility falls as a country develops. This decline in fertility is part of demographic transition theory; fertility drops for a myriad of reasons, including urbanization, falling child mortality, and increased longevity. For instance, as child mortality falls, women bear fewer children—they know they need to have fewer live births to attain their fertility goals. Kenya’s fertility decline over the past 30 years is a natural result of these advancements. As Kenya continues to develop, its fertility rate will continue to decline.

Even though the idea that moderate fertility hinders development contradicts demographic transition theory, the Kenyan government has embraced this falsehood at the urging of the UNFPA. This ideological error has consequently created distorted policy implementations.  In two policy papers, Kenyan government ministries laid out their utilitarian plan: despite individual wishes, fertility must fall for the common good. Their plan to curb fertility—a massive public education campaign—goes against the real desires of Kenyan women to have multiple children.

Experts agree that fertility remains high in Kenya, not because women don’t know how to lower their fertility, but because they do not want to. Knowledge of modern contraceptive methods in Kenya is “universal” at 97%. A professor of demography and sociology at Princeton, Charles Westoff, recently stated that “about half the women categorised as having an ‘unmet need’ [in Kenya] have no intention of using contraceptives even if they were made freely available,” and the most recent Demographic and Health Survey in Kenya found that, amongst women who don’t use contraception, fewer than 2% are deterred because of cost or access.

The policy papers repeatedly acknowledge that Kenyan fertility remains high because desired fertility is high:

– “The demand for children is still high and is unlikely to change unless substantial changes in desired family sizes are achieved among the poor in general….Thus the challenge is how to reduce further the continued high demand for children.” (Kenyan Population Situation Analysis)

–  “The achievement of this policy option (lowering fertility) is complicated by differences between individual fertility preferences and desirable fertility levels in these countries.” (Kenyan Population Situation Analysis)

The Kenyan government has decided that since Kenyan women are so misguided as to actually want 4 or 5 children, the government will have to change their reproductive desires:

– “Support programmes that will intensify nationwide advocacy and public awareness campaigns on implications of rapidly growing population on individual family welfare and national socio-economic development. This should create the required small family norms; desire for high quality of life as opposed to large numbers.” (Sessional Paper on Population Policy for National Development)

– Reduce mean ideal number of children for men from 4.3 in 2009 to 3 by 2030 and from women from 4.0 to 2.8 by 2030.”(Sessional Paper on Population Policy for National Development)

– “Formulate a scheme that recognises small family sizes.” (Sessional Paper on Population Policy for National Development)

The logic of the Kenyan government has become completely distorted; low fertility is no longer a neutral byproduct of development, but the new end goal. The Kenyan ministries seems to extol education and health as mere tools towards fertility reduction:

–  “Investing in both education and health would contribute to the attainment of more favourable demographic indicators, such as lower fertility…[and] lower ideal family sizes.” (Kenyan Population Situation Analysis)

– “Higher education leads to lower fertility rates, increased productivity and improved competitiveness.” (Sessional Paper on Population Policy for National Development)

– “Strengthen literacy programmes for improved uptake of family planning services.” (Sessional Paper on Population Policy for National Development)

Such a mentality violates not only natural sensibilities, but also U.S. federal funding laws. The U.S. is one of the UNFPA’s largest donors, having given over $30 million in 2012. The United States’ Tiahrt Amendment prohibits the U.S. from funding any U.S., foreign, or international NGO that participates in coercive family planning programs. The amendment includes targets or quotas for births amongst prohibited policies, and programs such as Kenya’s are therefore disqualified from funding. The Kenyan government has not tried to disguise that they have targets for fertility, the number of contraceptive users, the number of new contraceptive “acceptors,” or for desired family size (see image).

Now, all that remains is for the U.S. to decide whether or not they value population control over reproductive freedom, and for Kenya to decide whether or not they want to continue down this path of coercion in a misguided attempt to develop their country.


Government of Kenya. “Kenya Population Situation Analysis.” National Council for Population and Development (NCPD), July 2013. Web. <http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/kenya/drive/FINALPSAREPORT.pdf>.


Ministry of State for Planning, National Development and Vision 2030. “Sessional Paper No. 3 of 2012 on Population Policy for National Development.” National Council for Population and Development (NCPD), n.d. Web. <http://dataspace.princeton.edu/jspui/bitstream/88435/dsp01d504rk406/1/DSpacesessionalpapers.pdf>.

This article is courtesy of the Population Research Council.