In Africa, Delaying Motherhood Can Mean Escape From Poverty

I come from the slums of Nairobi, where delaying motherhood is not always a choice. I was lucky to have this option, and choosing to hold off on becoming a mother was my way of stepping out of poverty and getting an education. The question of when to have children is a luxury in much of America, where birth control is readily available. To many women in African countries, delaying motherhood has higher stakes, and is less achievable.

On July 8th the New York Times Room For Debate ran a piece called, "Should Women Delay Motherhood?" The perspectives represented were fascinating, wholly relevant to women in Western countries who grapple with issues of fertility and career. But it left out an important element to this debate: women in other parts of the world, particularly in developing countries. To us, this decision can be the difference between poverty and prosperity, and a defining factor in whether we are able to obtain an education. July 11th is World Population Day, and as we think about decisions of motherhood in Western countries, I hope we also consider ways of making this choice available to all women.

Beyond my personal experience as a mother in Nairobi, I have also implemented maternal and child health programs in this community for over 20 years, and have seen the effects that delaying motherhood can have on women here. I have seen too many African girls having children by the age of 15. Most of them drop out of school, severely limiting their career opportunities. They in turn cannot care for their children, are unable to break from the slum life and the cycle of poverty continues.

On the other hand, I've seen girls who delayed motherhood who continued their education, got college certificates and are now employed outside of the slums. They were able to give their children a better future while those who became mothers at an early age are confined to the traditional roles of housewives and are dependent on their husbands for a livelihood. Girls who become mothers at an early age are expected to marry the father, who may also not be ready to have a family and in some cases already has one.

In many African communities, family planning contraceptives are not readily available. Even when they are, there are barriers to use ranging from myths and misconceptions about family planning, beliefs that they can't use contraceptives before they have children and the sheer absence of contraceptives in our health facilities coupled with unaffordable costs.

The results are clear. The World Health Organization says that about 16 million women aged between 15-19 years old give birth each year, about 11 percent of all births worldwide. Ninety-five per cent of these births occur in low- and middle-income countries - and more than 50 percent of them occur in Africa.

I do not regret having waited until I was 29 before having my daughter and two sons. It meant that I was able to go to college, and find a job with Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins specializing in Maternal and Child health. My daughter is now pursuing a degree in nursing and public health and my sons are in Secondary school. My husband respects me and I have more power in our relationship since I contribute to our family's income.

Delaying motherhood allows women to complete their educations, earn salaries, have more stable families and give a better livelihood to their children. It also helps them to break away from the traditional role of housewives and dependency on their husband's family, which is sometimes demeaning. In Africa, the issue is not about delaying motherhood until our 30s and 40s, but until our 20s. We hope to one day have the privilege of mulling over fertility and contraception options rather than fighting for them.