Rwanda: 300% population increase by 2050?

While Africa overall has the world’s highest fertility rates, various changes in countries in the Sub-Saharan region of the continent have led to a decline in fertility rates, even though many of those countries report women as having four or more children.

Rwanda has experienced a particularly dramatic plunge in fertility rates, with a decline of two children per mother over a period beginning in 2005 and ending in 2014. While some may view this with concern, a 2014 study about the decline in Rwanda’s fertility rate indicated that the dramatic reversal signaled positive changes for the country’s overall economic health.

In that light, the study, which was published in the International Journal for Population Research, deemed Rwanda “a recent success story of rapid fertility decline in Sub-Saharan Africa”. That’s partially because the nation’s total fertility rate went from a level of 6.1 children women per mother in 2005 to just 4.6 five years later.

Researchers explored the reasons for this change. They found that during that same time period, the portion of women who were living with a partner and using some form of contraceptive grew from 10 to 45 per cent. This followed a period of static fertility levels during the 1990s – which is not out of the ordinary when compared to other Sub-Saharan countries.

This is part of a broader fluctuation in Rwandan birth rates, that has been ongoing for decades. The study referenced a pattern of “crisis-led fertility” in both the 1980s and early 1990s, particularly following a period of war and genocide that caused food production to plummet precipitously. This followed close on the heels of an already sharp economic decline from 1983 to 1992 that degraded the living conditions of the country’s population and caused the fertility rate to drop to 6.2 from 8.3.

A the dawn of the 21st century, when Rwanda created a program known as Vision 2020, which was intended to help the country reconstruct itself so as to be both self-sustaining and outwardly contributing, in part by reducing birth rates. When birth rates began to rise again, the government implemented new family planning policies, starting in 2006. Owing much to these efforts, the number of Rwandan women who wanted more than five children fell from 51.6% in 2000 to just 12.5% in 2010.

Today, we are seeing another rise. The East African published a March 2018 article entitled “High fertility rates bad for the Rwandan economy”. Underlying this increase in birth rates is difficulties in accessing family planning information as well as the availability of modern forms of contraception.

In part for this reason, Rwanda faces an especially serious challenge in addressing an increase in teenage pregnancies. Over 17,000 girls between the ages of 16 and 19 were pregnant in 2016, a Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion report indicated. The problem is seen as a major contributing factor to the large number of school dropouts in many districts.

The East African article cites the country’s National Institute of Statistics (NISR) as saying that high fertility rates could significantly undercut Rwanda’s goal of transforming itself into a high-income nation by 2050.

This is due to the fact that, given current trends, the population will increase over that period of time by some 300%. This, in turn, would deal a mortal blow to the government’s target of increasing per capita income from $700 to $12,000.

Yusuf Murangwa, NISR director-general, was quoted in the article as saying that the fertility rate would need to be drawn back to a minimum of 2.3 children per woman by 2035, but that this could happen only by decentralizing family planning services so as to help them work better.

But even then, he noted, those who use the services must be satisfied with them – a goal that at present remains unsatisfied. This includes those living in rural areas who have less access to family planning methods.

“The population is set to double, but we can ensure that citizens are productive and empowered to contribute to growth,” he said, adding, “There is a need for policy that emphasizes reducing current fertility rates as well as creating a healthy workforce”.

Rwanda has assuredly faced serious and catastrophic challenges to its survival unseen by much of the rest of the world. As its government grapples with strategies for best restoring the country to socio-economic wholeness, the choice to preserve assets for their best use remains a positive and viable option.