Population planning: A top priority

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M Ziauddin

Education and health are considered to be the two most important ingredients for enriching the quality of an individual’s life. That is why developed societies spend so much on health and education. And these two social instruments also contribute decisively towards spreading awareness about affordable size of the family and how to use healthcare to keep it within the limits of the resources available to maintain an acceptable quality of life. The Population Council of Pakistan has estimated that only 35.4 per cent of women in the country are currently practicing contraception and that more than 20 per cent of married women want to practice contraception to space out birth or limit their family size but is unable to do so. This is mainly because of widespread illiteracy, cultural taboos and inaccessibility to high quality family planning or birth spacing services. Also, there appears to be some kind of averseness on the part of successive governments, since General Zia’s days towards the matter of population planning.
This needs to be reversed. With the current government making a commitment at the Prime Minister’s level backed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan to treat this matter as one of the two major priorities of the nation (the other being building of Dams), following up with setting in place a strong family planning programme and increasing contraceptive prevalence rates do appear a certainty. Due consideration should also be given to the sensible suggestion that the population planning department should be merged with the health ministry.
But the government alone would not be able to do the needful with any degree of success. Civil society, the private sector and the media, especially the broadcast media, also need to join the effort wholeheartedly.
All private maternity homes and clinics, as well as all big private hospitals, should set up a population planning unit on their premises as it is the duty of all private commercial enterprises, under what is called the corporate social responsibility principle, to protect the interest of society at large. And the private broadcast media too, dictated by the same principle, should broadcast regular programmes, promoting population planning as a public service.
Telling people how many kids they can have is more than just a touchy subject.
So what can be done to effectively address Pakistan’s dwindling resources and degrading climate? Research has shown that the combination of family planning among women and educating girls about career and income opportunities has the most potential, to slow population growth. “Once women have more education and earn an income, they decide to have fewer children.” Therefore, educating and empowering women just might save us all.
The rate of population growth in Pakistan currently is officially estimated at around 2.1 per cent and the fertility rate is officially estimated to be 4.1 births per woman; both of which are currently lagging behind the data for the same, in all South Asian countries except Afghanistan.
Indeed, the possibility of under-estimation of both, the official population growth and fertility rates, cannot also be ruled out in view of the presumed under-estimation of the country’s population by the government. That is, perhaps, why it is becoming increasingly difficult for Pakistan to make the most of its available resources. As a consequence, the very fabric of our society is facing a serious threat with the writ of the state seemingly vanishing rapidly.
The total fertility rate is just an estimate, based on the number of children women have been having. When the rate is lower than about 2.1, it means total population will eventually stabilize and decline.
In most countries, total fertility falls from a high level of about six or seven children to two or below, and stays there. Once smaller families become the norm in a country or region, they very rarely go back up. There are a number of theories for why this happens. The shift from agriculture to urban life means less incentive for families to have kids to work on farms. Urban life also increases the cost of raising a kid. Higher education levels for women, freeing them from traditional gender norms, are probably a big factor as well. Importantly, none of these factors are said to be temporary.

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