Birth Control and Pregnancy

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Birth Control and Pregnancy


Birth Control. During the period from 500 to 1590, birth control was not usually a concern for West Africans. A man’s social status and masculinity were often measured by the number of children he fathered. Bringing children into the family was important because they were needed to work on the family farm. Birth-control methods were used, however, especially when crop failure caused extreme famine or when giving birth might jeopardize a woman’s life. Among the Yoruba, when a woman consistently gave birth to stillborn babies or infants who died shortly after they were born, she was considered a bearer of evil, and as such, she might be expected to practice birth control.

Methods. Women were taught to be aware of changes in their bodies during the menstrual cycle. In some cultures, a woman who wanted to avoid pregnancy might use locally produced contraceptive medicines or insert a sponge in her vagina before sex when she felt she was most likely to conceive. Knowledge of different birth-control methods was passed on from older women to younger girls before they reached puberty and began menstruation. However, it should be stressed that since sex before marriage was strictly forbidden, birth control for young unmarried women was rarely an issue. Women who wanted to avoid pregnancy could also abstain from sexual intercourse. By custom most nursing mothers were not allowed to engage in sexual intercourse until lactation stopped, and breast feeding generally lasted for more than three years. The general belief was that a woman’s breast milk might be polluted by sexual intercourse. In situations where women refrained from having sexual intercourse, their husbands were free to enter into sexual relationships with other women. Abortion was not an option because aborted children were believed to haunt the entire village.

Pregnancy. In some West African cultures, viewing the body of a pregnant female was taboo. Generally, a young and unmarried woman exhibited her physical beauty by going about her chores with only the lower part of her body covered, but a pregnant woman was prohibited from showing her naked body, especially her protruding stomach. The various West African ethnic groups differed in their beliefs and customs regarding pregnancy. More than any other group, the Ijaw and Okrika people of southeastern Nigeria attached much sacredness to pregnant female bodies. In their tradition a woman whose husband died while she was pregnant had to be locked away from the public until she gave birth to her baby. She was allowed to come out of her isolation to perform certain chores, such as washing dirty pots and plates, and she could wash herself weekly in a nearby river or pond. While she was bathing, no man was permitted to view her pregnant body. Any man who did so by accident was required to pick up a small stone or pebble and throw it at the woman. If the stone landed on her stomach, he had to take the woman as his wife. When born, the child belonged to the trespassing man. In other cultures, it was believed that exposure of the body during pregnancy might invite ghosts or evil spirits to enter the body and replace the unborn baby.


George B. N. Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational, 1991).

Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1989).

F. Ivan Nye and Felix Berardo, The Family: Its Structure and Interactions (London: Macmillan, 1973).

W. N. Stephens, The Family in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963).

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