In 2005 Africa’s overall birth rate was 35.3 births per 1,000 people, the highest among the world’s continents. The countries of North Africa have markedly lower rates than most sub-Saharan countries. South of the Sahara, fertility rates tend to fall in the 5 to 7 range (meaning that, on average, women give birth to 5 to 7 children over the course of their lifetimes). African societies have traditionally seen large families as signs of wealth and prestige, and value the presence of children in everyday life. Children are also an important source of labor, especially on farms, and eventually become the primary providers of assistance to elderly parents. In addition, a greater number of children mean more marriages, resulting in wider family support networks, and a crucial consideration in a continent where life is often hazardous. For all these reasons, to be childless is typically a cause for concern and often pity. As a result, birth control has not been accepted to the degree it has in other parts of the less developed world, such as Southeast Asia. The major exceptions are found among members of the newly emerging urban middle class, who have adopted nuclear family arrangements modeled on those in Western societies. Parents in nuclear families do not receive the higher level of support offered by extended families, so they find children costly in terms of money and time. These African families have therefore begun practicing birth control.
A high fertility rate translates into a young population, which has several important implications. It assures continued population growth, short of disaster occurring, into an indefinite future. Even if the fertility rate declines, the population will continue to grow because of the large number of women who will have reached their childbearing years. Population growth strains a nation’s child services, especially the provision of education and health care, and the problem becomes particularly acute when poverty is as widespread as it is in Africa. Competition for jobs intensifies as more and more people enter the labor market, and higher levels of unemployment can lead to increasing crime rates and wider social unrest. The impact of Africa’s high birth rate is a situation where most families are unable to cater for the needs of their children since African culture permits and in most cases condones polygamy.