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Breaking the Radio Silence on Population Growth

By Philip Warburg

Photo credit: James Cridland

For all their ideological differences, progressives and conservatives share an aversion to dealing with global population growth. 

Progressives commonly argue that privileged white people from the Global North shouldn’t meddle in the reproductive politics of poorer nations. To many in this camp, efforts to slow population growth conjure up past coercive efforts to limit fertility in places like India, with its forced sterilization programs dating back to the 1970s, and China, with its recently modified one-child policy.

Conservatives have their own concerns, tied largely to religious doctrines that treat certain kinds of contraception—abortion in particular—as apostasy. This has translated into restrictions imposed by successive US Republican administrations, barring aid to organizations working abroad that call for legalizing abortion or provide abortion information, referrals, or services.

Environmental groups likewise tend to avoid grappling directly with population growth. They assert that urbanization and the rise of a global middle class are creating social and economic conditions that favor fewer children per family. Yet especially in societies with deeply embedded religious beliefs and cultural norms favoring larger families, change comes more slowly than simple demographic shifts might suggest.

Another common argument is that overconsumption by wealthier nations, not overpopulation in poorer ones, is the ultimate environmental culprit. Calling out resource gluttony is surely valid, but it need not cause us to ignore the effect of billions more people inhabiting our planet by the end of this century.  According to the United Nations, the world’s population will likely reach 10.9 billion by 2100, up from 7.7 billion today. How can these numbers not place an enormous added strain on the earth’s already overtaxed resources?

Finding constructive ways to engage population growth isn’t easy, but one group that has forged ahead is the Population Media Center (PMC). Headquartered in South Burlington, Vermont, its staff works closely with in-country counterparts, mainly in the Global South. Together they produce radio serial dramas that help reshape popular norms about family planning, sexual and maternal health, and reproductive choice. Since its founding twenty-one years ago, PMC claims that its broadcasts have reached half a billion listeners in more than twenty languages.

PMC scriptwriters refrain from telling people what they should and shouldn’t do. Instead, they use storytelling to leverage behavioral change, based on a methodology first developed for Mexican telenovelas in the 1970s. 

Here’s one of the threads in a multi-episode radio drama that recently aired in Rwanda:

Bacyenga, a young villager, presses his girlfriend Rosine to marry him. She agrees but tells him that she does not want to get pregnant right away and only wants two children. Bacyenga counters that, to honor his father and prove himself a real man, he must have at least seven kids.

Just before their wedding, Rosine becomes pregnant. The strains between them deepen when he refuses to take her to the local health clinic for prenatal care. 

Following the birth of their child, Bacyenga is full of remorse for having kept Rosine from getting proper medical attention. They meet with a family planning counselor and he agrees to have just two children.

PMC launched its first Rwandan radio serial in 2006, with a show called Umurage Urukwiye (Rwanda’s Brighter Future). During the show’s revival several years later, twenty-six percent of the Rwandans polled said they listened regularly to its broadcasts. When the second revival aired last year, one in five listeners said they were motivated by the show to seek family planning assistance, reproductive health services, child protection, nutrition guidance, or help in addressing gender-based violence.

There’s a reason why these radio dramas reach so many Rwandans.  While 64 percent of households have at least one radio, televisions are rare and smartphone access is still limited.

Umurage Urukwiye isn’t just influencing its radio audience. Jean Bosco Kwizera, PMC’s resident representative in Rwanda, acknowledges the program’s impact on his own family. “As you write these scripts, you are also training yourself . . . . My wife and I discuss family planning, and how we can do birth spacing, and how many kids we’re going to have.” So far, they have a two-year-old son, and they want two more children—about one child less than the average Rwandan family. Jean Bosco, now age thirty-three, has seven brothers and sisters—a typical family size when he was growing up.

Alfred Twahirwa has been writing Rwandan radio scripts for PMC since 2007. He describes the difficulties he has had getting his sister to tune in to the broadcasts. She already has six children. “I know she used to follow my program but when I asked her, she said, ‘No, my radio is not working.’ So I said, ‘I will give you a radio!’  She is now following our programs and has decided to stop having children.”

Rwanda today, with 12.6 million people, is already one of the world’s most crowded nations. By 2050, its numbers are expected to reach 23 million, and by 2100, this small country’s population is likely to top 33 million. With such rapid demographic growth, Rwanda will have a tough time surmounting the poverty that now afflicts 39 percent of its population

If the UN is right, Africa’s population will more than triple by 2100, approaching 4.3 billion by 2100. For many African nations, the resource strains of population growth will be compounded as climate change takes its toll, flooding heavily settled coastal areas, turning marginal farmlands to desert, and exhausting already strained freshwater resources. 

Slowing population growth in traditional and transitional societies is no small challenge. Breaking the radio silence on reproductive choice is one important step in this transformation.


About the Author 

Philip Warburg, an environmental lawyer and author, is former president of New England’s Conservation Law Foundation. His two books, Harvest the Wind and Harness the Sun, were published by Beacon Press. Follow him on Twitter at @pwarburg.