THE perils of a runaway population are well known. Pakistan, with 208m people at last count, is often described as a ticking time bomb in this respect. Indeed, we are already witnessing the fallout of a piecemeal, half-baked approach to population planning over the decades. To contain the burgeoning numbers that put increasing strain on our limited resources, we need to act now. A new UNFPA report examines the various factors that have a bearing on fertility rates across the world, which in turn determine a country’s developmental gains. The factors contributing to higher-than-optimum fertility rates are largely rooted in institutional, economic and social realities — including gender inequality, shortfalls in healthcare, low education levels, etc. The report correctly holds that these impediments stand in the way of many countries achieving the SDG goals. Although Pakistan scarcely receives a mention, the document should nevertheless give our policymakers valuable insight into the scope of the issue, so they can come up with a well-considered, holistic and result-oriented policy.
Gender-based discrimination is the biggest obstacle to a successful family planning programme because it cuts across virtually every aspect that influences family size. As a country that figures near the bottom of the gender parity index each year, Pakistan confronts many challenges. While conservative social mores sometimes deprive even couples from taking independent decisions about their reproductive behaviour, patriarchal systems militate particularly against women’s autonomy. Gender-based violence and forced/ early marriage further erode their agency and increase the likelihood of unwanted and repeated pregnancies. In the absence of a robust health infrastructure, bearing a child is fraught with risk for the woman. That too feeds into the low status of half the country’s population, the perception they are dispensable. Moreover, Pakistan has the worst under-five mortality rate in South Asia, which further incentivises the desire for more children. There is also the issue of unmet need: according to the UNFPA report, 20pc of women of reproductive age in this country, who want to stop or delay childbearing, are not using any method of contraception.
Often, conservative attitudes are cited as a major obstacle to family planning in Pakistan, resulting in stop-start campaigns, and tentative, even obtuse, attempts at raising awareness that leave the target audience none the wiser. However, this is a misleading argument that diverts attention from the apathy and lack of planning by successive governments. After all, Iran has successfully brought down its fertility rate, not in spite of, but with the support of its powerful clergy. Indeed, the importance of government-sponsored information campaigns and family planning services cannot be overstated. Fertility rates in Bangladesh, for instance, start declining from decades ago even in poor, rural areas due to the state’s active involvement. The recently installed PTI government, with its emphasis on social upliftment, must accord population control the priority it deserves.
Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2018