OVER the past two decades, successive governments have sidestepped the issue of population control and hidden behind a plethora of poverty alleviation and social development schemes. With some 225m people, Pakistan has the world’s fifth largest population. With a national growth rate of around 2pc, at least 4.4m people are added to the existing numbers every year. This addition alone is equal to the combined population of 40 of the world’s smallest countries. Unfortunately, there is virtual silence on the subject on the part of our political leaders. Does this attitude result from complacency and a tendency to dismiss long-term challenges, or are our leaders simply not prepared to irk the religious right by bringing up the topic? Even at the Islamabad Security Dialogue held in March, the threat posed by our galloping numbers to the country’s natural and human resources hardly figured in the conversation. Surely, our political leadership led by the prime minister, who talks candidly about other uncomfortable yet important global issues, can end the awkward silence that surrounds a pressing national (and international) problem. Indeed, the government took religious leaders and scholars on board to make a combined attempt at ensuring compliance with Covid-19-related SOPs during Ramazan; can’t the same be done to develop a coherent narrative on the need to bring down the population growth rate to sustainable levels?

Given the controversial nature of the debate, perhaps there can be greater emphasis on ‘family health’ rather than ‘population control’, since many see the latter as a Western conspiracy against Muslim societies. An effort can be made to talk about maternal health in the context of religion and the nation’s social development. Pakistan’s national fertility rate of 3.6 means that on average a mother has at least three children, with one being unplanned. This figure is higher than the whole of South Asia’s (2.4pc), the region itself having the highest fertility rate in the world. No surprise then that, according to the National Nutritional Survey 2018, 42pc of women of reproductive age are at least moderately anaemic. The aim should be to gently steer people’s decisions by promoting this year’s theme for World Population Day that is being observed today: ‘Rights and choices are the answer: whether baby boom or bust, the solution to shifting fertility rates lies in prioritising the reproductive health and rights of all people’.

Surely there can be no argument about the fact that healthy mothers are the key to having healthy children and that birth spacing encourages healthier families. Even in Saudi Arabia, women can access family planning as part of healthcare. Almost all other large Muslim countries, including Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc have successfully implemented population reforms through broad consensus led by their respective governments. Pakistan must make efforts to arrest and bring down its population growth rate before it’s too late.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2021

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