Stopping the count: Why Tana River mums are secretly using contraceptives

Mothers outside their houses in Assa village, Tana River County.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In most of these rural villages, poor housing and clothing, and high rates of malnutrition have been the standard of living for decades.
  • Raising children has been a Herculean task.

In the far-flung areas of Tana River County where the herder communities live, many children graze livestock in the sweltering heat.

In most of these rural villages, poor housing and clothing, and high rates of malnutrition have been the standard of living for decades. On average, a 30-year-old woman has eight children.

For the men, the count continues. But for the women, it has to stop by all means, and a secret family planning method could be the way out.

Amina Bilisee, 31, is a mother of six. For her, childbearing has lots of pain with no gain. It’s been 14 years since she was married.

“I never had a good break, my second-born came barely nine months after I had had my firstborn and the rest came at an interval of one-and-a-half years, all of them delivered at home. I had one miscarriage, and one stillbirth," she says.

Raising children has been a difficult task, as they require food, clothes, and fees to meet the demands of the Competency-Based Curriculum, among other basic needs. It is a burden that she has to carry alone, as her husband is not helpful. He wants more children from her, but she has had enough.

“I heard from a friend, who is a community health volunteer, about family planning. She was already practising it secretly, so I thought I should try it," she says.

Amina notes that she has tried two methods to settle on the one that gives her comfort. The Norplant family planning method has worked for her for two years. Her husband has tried to find out why she is not getting pregnant, and each time he raises the question, she tells him her body could be too weak to keep up with the count.

“He has since married another wife and so far they have two children in three years, and she is already pregnant with another,” she says, amid laughter.

Amina has come a long way to learn about the methods of family planning through friends. She notes that her lessons have been paid with pain and loss of blood, acknowledging that though she has settled for the Norplant, she still does not have much information about it.

“I got it at home to last me at least five years, my body can rest as I raise my children past primary school and I can also use this time to find money to raise them.”

Fatma Mirkanii, a 26-year-old mother of three, notes that she opted for the Depo Provera injection after learning about it from her secondary school friends. She had tried the intra-uterine device that caused her a lot of bleeding. 

“I just went to a private hospital and they did it for me since in most dispensaries they ask a lot of questions and sometimes they want you to come with your husband so that he can also consent, yet our men will never allow it," she says.

She has also secretly used emergency contraception to ensure the spacing of her children in a gap of two years. However, most of the time, it proves difficult to keep up with it, especially when the husband is consistently around.

“He saw me take the e-pills but did not know what they were. I would tell him they were strong painkillers, and he understood.”

It is a trend they have to adopt lest they end up with many children they cannot cater to.

Fatma is the second wife. She is also tasked to help the first wife feed her children, who are currently 11. “Our husband is around in seasons, he can be here for a month, and once he impregnates one of us, he will be gone to the wilderness for another nine months. It is our duty to survive.”

Many other women lead a regrettable life, putting their health at risk to please their men and satisfy traditional norms. The family planning idea, however, is slowly gaining momentum among women, even as men maintain their stand.

“It is against our religion and it is also not our culture. This is like trying to disown what God is giving because the evidence of our fruitful womb is children," says Mohamed Roble, an elder. 

According to Mr Roble, if he ever finds out any of his four wives using family planning, he will divorce her and ensure she is banished from the village. "I pay a heavy dowry so that I can have children, practising family planning is equal to killing my offspring, and that is not forgivable," he says.

Mariam Bassa, a gender activist in Tana Delta, however, notes that the economy does not support the tradition of siring many children. She notes that the level of poverty occasioned by drought and poor rains demands that couples from herder communities adopt family planning.

Mariam Bassa, a gender activist, during an interview with Nation.Africa in Garsen, Tana River County.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor I Nation Media Group

“You will notice that the streets and even the bushes are filled with children either begging or grazing animals instead of learning and enjoying their childhood, it's a pity, "she said.

She notes that the women in these communities are overwhelmed, and by the time they exhaust their youth, they look too old for their age. Further, this contributes to poverty rates in society since most of the children do not access quality education and neither have access to proper nutrition.

"It is a crisis that requires a candid conversation, the goats and cows are dead, and there is no milk, and climate change is taking a toll on what they used to depend on. It is time for the conversation on family planning," she said.

Health experts advise against conceiving a few months after delivery and recommend birth spacing. Asha Salim, a reproductive health specialist, recommends that a woman take at least 18 months before she conceives again.

This she says gives the woman's body time to recover before it is ready for another pregnancy lest she risks her life.

"After having a baby, your body may not have enough of certain nutrients, like folic acid which is a vitamin that every cell in your body needs for normal growth and development," she said.

She adds that when a woman gets pregnant again too soon while the folic acid levels are low, the next baby is likely to be born prematurely, with low birth weight or neural tube defects. 

According to the data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Tana River County has a high child-rich population that is 51 per cent of its population, which stands at 315,943 people. 

Of that population, 56 per cent have no formal education, while the poverty rate stands at 79.1 per cent.