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Contraceptive Use Increases in Muslim-Dominated Northern Nigeria

A rural community in the predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria is witnessing a significant increase in the use of modern family planning methods and contraceptives. Women in Zakarai village, in Kano state, are flocking to the local hospital to take advantage of a family planning program for the poor. Gilbert da Costa reports for VOA from in Kano state.

Rabiu Musa, 32 years old, sits among a dozen women and scores of children at the Zakarai hospital. She is making her first visit to the clinic to seek help with family planning. Rabiu has seven children and says her husband has agreed the family will benefit from family planning.

"My name is Rabiu. I have seven children. My husband has agreed, with the help of this coalition. My husband is a farmer. He sent me to take this family planning in order to have rest," she said.

In Zakarai village, about 50 kilometers from the main city of Kano, a community-based outreach project is helping low-income families get the education and contraceptives they need to act responsibly.

Community volunteers, with technical support from the Community Participation for Action in the Social Sector, COMPASS, a USAID-sponsored project, are helping women avoid unwanted and often high-risk pregnancies.

"They did not even come before, but with the community coalition that mobilizes-going to village heads calling them, letting them know what is family planning, they are coming. If you look at our register, you will see the difference," said Hauwa Umar, who runs the family planning clinic at Zakarai hospital. "We started with sometimes 10 people will come [in a week], but now we do it everyday, Monday to Friday, and they are coming. Sometimes more than 20 people will come for family planning."

None of the women gathered in the dimly-lit clinic was accompanied by a husband, but Nurse Umar says their role is critical in sustaining the momentum.

"Some, they have enough children they want to rest. Some they want to space between their children. Sometimes they even come with their husbands or they give them letter," she said. "That will tell me that their husbands accepted. That is the order. They come with a letter or come with their husbands, so that we do not have any problem."

COMPASS is a five-year integrated community-driven project with nine implementing partners, including the Federation of Muslim Women's Association and the Nigerian Medical Association.

The project, which started in 2004, seeks to improve the health and education status of 23 million Nigerians in three northern and two southern states.

COMPASS field officer in Kano, Mohammed Gama, says putting the community in the driving seat was the catalyst for the program's success in one of the most conservative communities in Nigeria.

"Whether you are educated or not, you should be given a chance to plan how to address the problems in your community," said Gama. "The problem we are having is that we never give chance to the common man at the community level. How we did it here in Kano is that we respect the participation of every village man, every street person, every community member, and every traditional, religious leader; whether you are educated, or whether you are not educated."

Cultural and religious beliefs had long discouraged millions of men and women from accessing mainstream family planning services. Islamic leaders in conservative, Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, particularly Kano, had long opposed the use of contraceptives. But the persistence of outreach groups like COMPASS is helping to break down the barrier.

An increasing number of men have become champions of family planning in communities where COMPASS has a presence. Isiaku Gamawa lives in Zakarai village.

"I do support it seriously. I do sympathize with young women. Sometimes you see a woman carrying pregnancy, carrying children on her back. Sometimes you see they carry another one on her shoulders. With spacing, one can have as many children as possible. But this premature delivery, one pushing another, is too much. They give us problems," said Gamawa.

Nigeria's current population is about 144 million and growing rapidly at 3.2 percent every year, which means the population could double in less than 25 years.

The fast growing population has been cited as one of the reasons for endemic poverty in oil-rich Nigeria.