A nation of 335 million?

05 Oct 2011


MORE than climate change, more than the depletion of fresh water supply, a fast population growth rate is the key element which will determine the survival of humankind.

Of these three, population growth requires the least complex planning in a way but the most challenging strategy. On the one hand, its success does not depend on intricate international coordination and diplomatic bargaining. But on the other, it needs to effect a change in human behaviour that calls for sensitivity and understanding. Success in population planning will have a beneficial impact on the other two problems identified and will ease the pressure in those areas.

Pakistan has suffered the evil effects of all three. It is time that it addressed the population problem on a priority basis and with a measure of understanding.

Much has been written on population explosion but it is treated more as a numbers game. One analyst even implied that in Pakistan the size of the population would not be such a major issue if wealth was equitably distributed. No one would dispute the need for greater parity in resources but would that mitigate the human difficulties posed by large families? The father who sired 19 children I met after the family had fled to Baldia (Karachi) from Swat in the wake of the army action in 2009 is not altogether an exceptional phenomenon in Pakistan.

The pressure on natural resources, the urgency of addressing challenges such as the quality of life, providing basic services to all such as good education, healthcare, nutrition and housing would not melt away even if more resources were made available. We need human expertise of an extraordinary kind if an impact has to be made in the not-so-distant future before a new generation of baby boomers catch up to create a new backlog

What is surprising is the cavalier manner in which the population issue is generally treated. Take the World Contraception Day that has been instituted by the UN since 2007 and was observed last week in Islamabad. We have already been observing a World Population Day in July since 1989. The Pakistan government dutifully falls in line to display its commitment and holds seminars and conferences which mean little as our population continues to grow at the rate of 2.2 per cent (UNFPA estimates). It is said we shall be a nation of 335 million in the year 2050.

Regrettably, few feel any concern about the underlying issues that need to be identified and addressed. Thus the conference last week expended a lot of oral energy on the theme, ‘Live your life, know your rights, learn about contraception’. The emphasis was on the need to create awareness. Probably none of the speakers had read up the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) of 2006-07 (the last to be conducted) which clearly stated, “Nearly all Pakistani women knew of at least one method of contraception.”

But what many women need is knowledge of where to obtain the contraceptives. Given the immobility of a large number of women, their newfound knowledge of contraception can be unproductive. Small wonder the PDHS speaks of a large unmet need — that is women who want to plan their families but can’t because of non-availability of contraceptives (at least 36 per cent by UNFPA calculations).

The USAID representative who attended the Islamabad conference understood the significance of this need and said her agency had provided several billion dollars for this purpose. But someone has to make the contraceptives accessible, and given the state of our devolved social-sector departments, it is not clear how these billions will be spent.

What is more worrying is the general inability of the population planners to take a holistic approach to the issue. Although so many studies have conclusively established that a family-planning programme cannot be seen in isolation, we seem to be focusing on keeping a count of the contraceptives dispensed. It is the status of women that needs to be upgraded so that every girl child who is born is a wanted child. Is it surprising that the PDHS found that 65 per cent of women with three boys did not want any more children while only 14 per cent of women with three daughters said the same?

More telling was the view expressed by a young mother-to-be that she did not want her baby to be a girl because she didn’t want her child to suffer in life as she herself had.

It is universally acknowledged that when girls are educated their fertility level goes down. And if they also work outside the home — that is if they are empowered — it is more likely that they will have fewer children. Yet have we really made any extraordinary effort to send our girls to school? UNFPA gives us some statistics. Nearly 72 per cent of girls enrolled in primary school reach Grade 5 but only 28 per cent go on to secondary school. Given their lack of empowerment, whatever little education girls receive does not change their life substantially.

So where do we go from here? To the goal of 335 million? If that has to be avoided then men must also be partners in the programme. It is not that they do not play the role of the decision-maker in the matter of family size. But they are happy to leave it to women to carry the burden of responsibility.