DAKAR, March 31 (Reuters) - Broadening access to contraceptives in Africa's arid Sahel region and improving women's sexual health are key parts of a $200 million World Bank project in the conservative Muslim region, its coordinator said.
The project in Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, and Ivory Coast seeks to boost long-term prosperity by relieving population pressures on an environment stricken by drought, Christophe Lemiere, coordinator of the Sahel Women's Empowerment and Demographics Project, told Reuters.
Lemiere said the project aimed at producing a demographic dividend, a rise in living standards resulting from the falling birth rates that lead to a large working-age population with fewer dependents.
That demographic trend played a major role in the economic ascension of Asian countries like Korea and India between the 1960s and 2000s. But Lemiere said that fertility rates in the Sahel need to drop rapidly.
"To trigger the quick fertility transition, the project is trying to increase the supply and demand of contraceptives," he said in the recent interview. "That's where women's empowerment is kicking in."
The Sahel belt running south of the Sahara has seen water levels per capita drop 40 percent over the last 20 years, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The region is struggling to sustain its fast-growing population, which has the world's highest fertility rate and has seen its infant mortality rate drop by 25 percent over the last decade.
Reducing early marriage and childbirth is a priority in a region where a quarter of women aged 15 to 19 are mothers or pregnant.
The project, partnered with the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), aims to increase voluntary family planning by improving access to sexual education for women.
However, a rise in the working age population will take time to achieve, Lemiere said, particularly in a country like Niger, where nearly half the population is under the age of 15.
Niger signed a deal for $53 million of funding this month under the project but sexual education is a sensitive topic in the Muslim country. Sex education was dropped from the school syllabus last year after pressure from Islamic leaders.
In Niger, literate females aged 15 to 24 number fewer than half of literate males the same age. Lemiere said righting this unbalance would contribute to reducing fertility rates.
While the project is set to conclude in 2019, he said it could require 10 to 15 years of targeted development to see a positive change.
(Reporting by Finbar Piper; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Heneghan)
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