Bone Beads: The Essential Family Planning Tool in Senegal

by lisacallow on March 14, 2011

UPDATE: We have received many emails asking where people can purchase the fun bone beads pictured below. We have found that The Bead Chest African Bead Superstore has the best selection of these awesome bone beads.

According to several independent research studies, as well as reports


African Bone Beads

provided by statistic database Nationmaster; 80% of the ‘top ten’ countries with the highest birthrate in the world (as of 2008) are within Africa. Niger tops the scale with a whopping 49.62 births per 1000 of the population, closely followed by Mali and Uganda in second and third place, with 49.38, and 48.15 births per 1000 respectively. South Africa as a whole bears 20.12 per thousand. When compared with the likes of the United States who average 14.18, and the United Kingdom at 10.65; there is clearly an overwhelming difference – perhaps surprising given how often we hear reports of vast increases in the statistics for teenage pregnancy.

The concurring reasoning for such high birthrates within Africa as a continent, is the lack of contraception available to the populace, particularly  within the most impoverished areas such as Niger, Ghana and Ethiopia. Here too, the AIDS epidemic continues to grow, spread and hinder the lifespan of entire generations – all because of a lack of available contraceptives.

Senegal, in the heart of Western Africa represents a country now opening it’s eyes to the issues of mass-breeding , from both a financial and economical perspective. The country may not be as impoverished as Ethiopia, yet there is still widespread poverty on a noticeable scale. Studies still suggest that only 10% of married women within Senegal actually use contraception, despite the increase in availability of both the oral contraceptive pill, and other variants. Many women (even in the ‘developed’ Western world) attest to the contraceptive pill not being the most versatile of family planning tools, largely because it does not provide protection if the user forgets to take it within a 24 hour period.

So what possible answer is there, that will both aid and encourage the women of Senegal to adopt a more sensible approach to family planning? Strangely, it could prove to be a small decorative piece of art, that has been used for adornment and ritual natively, for many hundreds of years – Bone beads! Long favored for their versatility, color and the ease by which they can be polished to a wondrous shine, Bone beads have been used as currency during trade; symbolism/ gifting during rituals and rites of passage, and as personal adornment to ward off evil spirits.

While evidence exists to suggest the women of Senegal have long been using brown and white bone beads, upon a simple strung circle to replicate and keep up with their menstrual cycles, it is Georgetown University of Washington D.C. who have pioneered the ‘CycleBeads’ now being handed out in the country. CycleBead strings comprise of 32 coloured beads upon a circular raffia, each representing a day of the female reproductive cycle. Red dyed bone beads represent the start of menstruation, while the white are significant of the fertile window. Natural brown bone beads indicate when conception would be at it’s unlikeliest.

CycleBeads have not been developed to resolve the contraception issues of Senegal. Rather, they have been designed to educate and encourage women about their fertility and family planning responsibilities. Many women, for religious, or personal reasoning, are still disinclined to adopt the contraceptive pill, and would rather rely upon natural methods of contraception. The aim of these African bone beads is to prompt women to think more logically about their sexual health and family planning. Since 2008, they have been proving to be a slow, but certain success story, and a trend crossing the boundaries into other parts of Africa’s sub-Saharan territories.

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  • Anonymous

     Nice to read your post. I needed to know such kind of information to update myself.

  • Anonymous

    The high birthrate is not just because of lack of contraception. You have to be careful when citing birthrate statistics, because they fuel stereotypes about African people. While there is a high birthrate there is unfortunately a high infant mortality rate. Additionally in agrarian societies, and societies with insufficient health care, one’s children provide labor as well health care when you get old. More children also mean more potential incomes when the children get older. I understand you are trying to connect the cycle beads story with Senegalese history, but be careful.

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