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Why do the poor have large families?
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By Compassion Canada



Every child is a gift and a joy. But when income is scarce and a family is already struggling, why do parents expand their families? There are many social, cultural, religious and economic reasons why parents in the developing world have large families. Some might surprise you!

1. High child mortality rates

Because child mortality rates in the developing world are so high, parents will intentionally have large families because the grim reality is that sometimes children don’t survive. In Burkina Faso, a shocking 8.9 per cent of children will die before reaching their fifth birthday; in Haiti, it’s 6.9 per cent. For comparison, in Canada, the same figure is 0.5 per cent.

2. Limited access to education

At the World Population Conference in the 1970s, Dr. Karan Singh made the ground-breaking comment that development is the best contraceptive. It’s generally true: the higher the degree of education and GDP per capita a country has, the lower the birth rate. In Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries, less than one-third of the country can competently read and write. Here, the average number of kids a mum has is between five and six. In Canada, the average couple has 1.61 children.

There are a few reasons why education is connected to a lower birth rate. An educated woman is likely to marry at a later age, use contraception and have fewer children. A study in Guatemala found that for each additional year a young woman spent in school, the age at which she had her first child was delayed approximately six to 10 months.

Educating girls also helps women control how many children they have. UNSECO estimates 60 per cent fewer teenage girls in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia would become pregnant if they all had a secondary education.


Mother and father and eleven children sit in front of a wagon full of hay

3. Early marriage and gender expectations

In some countries, a woman’s role is expected to be as a wife and mother. This often means she gets married younger and begins having children sooner. Her parents don’t invest in her education since there doesn’t seem to be any point. She is sometimes perceived as a financial burden, and the sooner she marries, the sooner she is provided for by someone else.

In developing countries, one in every three girls is married before age 18. Married girls are often under pressure to become pregnant as soon as possible. This typically means an end to a girl’s education, which can limit her life choices and help perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

4. Limited access to contraception

An estimated 225 million women in developing countries would like to delay or stop childbearing but are not using any method of contraception. Most of these women live in the poorest countries on earth. In Africa, one in four women of reproductive age have an unmet need for modern contraception. This is due to many reasons, including limited information, limited options of contraceptive methods, limited access to contraception, cultural or religious opposition and poor quality of available services. Supply chains often don’t extend to remote or rural areas, where families in extreme poverty tend to live.


Seven children stand together. Some hold hands while other have their arms around each other's shoulders. They stand in front of a sea-foam green wall.

5. No government-provided pensions or social security benefits

In some developing countries, the government doesn’t provide a pension or social security benefit, so parents must rely on their children to care for them in their old age. Couples may choose to have large families to ensure they are supported when they’re older. For example, in India, children and grandchildren are legally required to provide food, accommodation and health care for their parents if their parent is unable to provide for themselves.

6. Need for extra labour

More than 70 per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, with most families depending on labour-intensive agriculture to survive. In these communities, there can be a cultural expectation to have big families to provide extra labour. Usually, farmers who live off their harvest can’t afford to pay extra labourers; they can only depend on themselves and their children. For them, a large family might be the only assurance for survival.

7. Religion

Religious beliefs may mean a family chooses not to use contraceptives. In Latin America, social norms and religious tradition mean family planning services aren’t always available to many communities. Affordable options for accessing contraception and health care for remote or rural communities are in short supply.




A husband and wife sit on chairs in the shade of a tree. Gathered around them are their thirteen children, including baby quadruplets.

There’s a couple in Compassion’s Child Survival Program in Haiti who have 13 children. Yep, 13! Heribert is the sole breadwinner for the family. Despite Heribert’s hard work, the family struggled to survive. So why did Heribert and his wife, Jeancillia, have more children?

For Heribert and Jeancilia, the reason for their large family was a little different. Their brood includes an astonishing two sets of twins and one set of quadruplets. After being diagnosed with yellow fever, she was forced to stop taking her birth control pills, and the quadruplets were quite a surprise!

As part of our Child Survival Program, Jeancilia and Heribert learned about how to space their family, while Heribert was also trained to use a motorcycle to start an income generating activity. He’s saving the money he earns for his children’s education.

Whatever their family size, by equipping parents to support their families through income generating activities and empowering them with knowledge, moms and dads are empowered to break the cycle of poverty.

Learn more about supporting moms and babies.

About Compassion

In response to the Great Commission, Compassion International exists as an advocate for children, to release them from their spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enable them to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults. As one of the world’s leading child development organizations, Compassion partners with the local church in 26 countries to end poverty in the lives of children and their families.

Today, more than 1.9 million children are discovering lives full of promise and purpose as they develop in all the different aspects of their lives—their minds, bodies and relationships while discovering God’s love for them in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Click HERE to link to Compassion.






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