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Rwandan Government Proposes Legislation Limiting Family Size

Rwanda announced in early February that it will seek to introduce legislation limiting family size to no more than three children.  Concerns about increasing poverty and a lack of economic and social resources have spurred the government’s decision.1

Rwanda currently has one of the highest birth rates in Africa with an average of six children born per couple.  Rwanda’s current population of nine million has doubled over the past 50 years and is expected to double again by 2030.  Following the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 people, Rwanda’s population has grown at 3% per year making it the most densely populated country in Africa. 

Rwanda has traditionally had low rates of contraceptive usage among women of reproductive age but those rates have dramatically decreased following the years of civil war which culminated in the 1994 genocide.  In 1990, 12.9% of women ages 15–49 used some form of modern contraception compared to only 4.3% in most recent estimates.2  In rural areas, it is estimated that only 2.6% of women use modern contraceptive methods for family planning.3 

Reasons for this low usage of contraception are complex and involve a combination of factors including lack of knowledge about family planning methods, lack of access to health services, and women’s inability to regulate fertility because of social and cultural norms.  According to some rural Rwandan women, pressure from husbands who desire large families is a contributing factor to their decision not to use family planning methods. ”I attend the family planning lessons but my husband fumes whenever I go back home. He believes in having 12 children, I don’t know what to do yet I love my husband and cannot leave my marriage,” explained one mother of five.4

Such disparate attitudes between men and women about the benefits of family planning underscores the dire need for increased education on contraceptive methods and maternal and child health in Rwanda.  There are currently several international donors in Rwanda providing health services, including USAID.  Rwanda is also one of 15 focus countries receiving the bulk of funding under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).     

Unfortunately, under PEPFAR, the U.S. government has done little to integrate reproductive health and HIV services thereby missing a vital opportunity to provide comprehensive reproductive health services to both women and men.  This lack of integration, coupled with a continuing reduction in U.S. funds for international family planning services has left many countries struggling with ways to cope with population growth.  For 2008, for example, the Bush administration has proposed a 25 percent or $111 million reduction to family planning/reproductive health funding.  Despite the situation in Rwanda and other developing countries, the administration’s rationale for this cut is “a recognition” of “significant successes that have been achieved after 40 years of worldwide family planning efforts.”5

Rwanda is the first African nation to announce legislation regulating family size. Given that past successes in reducing fertility rates in other African countries have been the result of ongoing funding for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services rather than legal change, the impact that the proposed legislation will have is unclear.  The suggested law, however, does raise questions about reproductive rights and the government’s legal abilities to regulate population growth.  Rwandan government representatives have said that the proposed law will not penalize families with more than three children, but instead will offer incentives to those who meet the new limitations.6

For more information about the state of population in Rwanda, see

For more information about PEPFAR Rwanda, see SIECUS’ PEPFAR Country Profiles at


  1. “Rwanda: Three Child Limit Planned,”  Reuters,  15 February 2007, accessed 21 February 2007, <
  2. Rwanda: Population, Health and Social Indicators, UNFPA (2005), accessed 21 February 2007, <>.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Patience Uwitonze, “Rwanda: Rural Women Yearn for Family Planning Services,” The New Times, 15 February 2007, accessed 21 February 2007, <>.
  5. U.S. State Department, "Summary and Highlights,”  <>.
  6. “Rwanda Mulling 3 kid Limit for Families,”, 13 February 2007, accessed 21 February 2007, <>.