INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON POPULATION AT MEXICO: A higher status for women means a lower birth rate By Zubeida Mustafa,

By Zubeida Mustafa,

Women figure prominently in the recommendations adopted by the International Conference on Population held at Mexico City, in August 1984. This amounts to a clear-cut recognition of the relationship between the status of women in a country and its population growth rate.

It is now widely known that the higher the female literacy rate, the lower the infant and maternal mortality rate and the better the employment opportunities for women, the greater is the likelihood of such a country having a low population growth rate.

This aspect of the matter was recognised by the Population Plan of Action adopted at Bucharest ten years ago. It has been reconfirmed by the Mexico Conference which has now laid down more precise guidelines.

Obviously, this has been felt to be necessary because in many countries neither has the population growth rate gone down in the last decade nor has the situation for women shown any marked improvement.

women-status-12-14-09-1984Pakistan is one instance where the Bucharest plan has failed to make a visible impact. After a slight drop in the mid-seventies, when a vigorous population planning programme had been drawn up, the crude birth rate in the country has climbed back to 41 per 1000. Infant mortality rate stands at 100 per thousand live births and eight women in a thousand die during childbirth. It remains to be seen if the Mexico decisions will be taken more seriously by Governments. The population crisis the world is heading for should induce Third World countries to take heed of the guideliness set at Mexico City.

Health care

Among the recommendations adopted by the Population Conference, those which pertain to women and children are the most important. If implemented effectively they can help cut down population growth rate substantially. Basically they are directed towards providing better health care to children and mothers to reduce infant mortality rate and to improve the status of women.


It has now been clearly established that high infant mortality rate in a country is one of the causative factors leading to a high crude birth rate. When a mother cannot be assured that the child she gives birth to will survive into adulthood, she produces a larger number of children. If it can be ensured that a high ratio of the children born will not die, mothers can be more readily persuaded to plan their families. In this context the Mexico recommendations are significant. They urge Governments to take immediate steps to identify the underlying causes of mortality among infants and develop special programmes to alleviate these conditions. Some of the measures recommended are: prenuptial medical examinations, prenatal and perinatal care, nutritional programmes for pregnant and nursing women, appropriate steps to help women avoid abortions and use of techniques such as child growth monitoring, oral rehydration therapy and immunisation.

These measures, when adopted, produce an impact on child mortality rates. Pakistan has adopted some of them but these programmes are of such limited application that it is doubtful that they can have a nation-wide impact until they are expanded considerably.

As it is, in terms of infant mortality rate, this country falls in the group with the highest rate. (The Government claims it to be 100 per 1000 while UN agencies put it at 126). In any case, the Population Conference has urged such countries to aim at a rate of 70 per 1000 live births by the year 2000. The second significant aspect of the Mexico recommendations has a bearing for the status of women. Here it would be instructive to quote in full the relevant recommendation

It says: “Governments are strongly urged to integrate women fully into all phases of the development process, including planning, policy and decisionmaking. Governments should pursue more aggressively action programmes aimed at improving and protecting the legal rights and status of women through efforts to identify and to remove institutional and cultural barriers to women’s education, training and employment. In addition, Governments should provide remedial measures, including mass education programmes, to assist women in attaining equality with men in the social, political and economic life of their countries. The promotion of community support in expediting these efforts should be given paramount importance.” Other recommendations specifically speak of the free participation of women in the labour force, education and training of women, raising the mean age at marriage and encouraging the involvement of men in all areas of family responsibility, including family planning, child rearing and housework.


It is clear that in the area of improving the status of women, Pakistan still has a long way to go Where issues can be quantified, the state of affairs is appalling. Female literacy rate is 16 per cent (only 7 per cent in the rural areas). Women’s participation in the organised labour force is two per cent. Over and above this, laws are being introduced which discriminate against women and relegate them to a lower legal status than men.

On the social and cultural plane, matters are worse and can be expected to grow worse still in the absence of an official and institutional thrust towards raising the female status.

It is surprising that Pakistan’s Population Welfare Plan, which is said to have adopted the broadbased approach, does not specifically speak of many of these issues. It certainly could do with some drastic revisions in the light of the Mexico recommendations.

But that alone would not be enough. It is also important that these measures be actually implemented. At least those entrusted with policy making and implementation in the population sector should be prepared to take a stand on the question of the status of women in Pakistan and identify the areas where we are deviating from the recommendations adopted at the Mexico Conference. Here it would be pertinent to point out that Pakistan’s Population Welfare Programme falls short of the Mexico recommendations in other ways too, which also affects women more than men. This is the provision of information and services to assist men and women to plan their families. The Mexico plan urges Governments to improve the quality and enhance the effectiveness of family planning services. It proposes sex education for adolescents, programmes of incentives and disincentive (which should not be coercive or discriminatory), and the adoption of national fertility goals which should be translated into specific policies that are clearly understood by the citizens.


Pakistan is way behind in all . these matters. To begin with, very few people are even aware of the fertility goals the Government has set for the country. No incentives or disincentives have ever been announced or attempted.

Even more significant is the fact sex education and family planning information is taboo and not spoken about generally. Text books used in schools of the book’s designed for the recently launched adult literacy programme do not even touch upon this subject.

Given this “hush hush” approach, it is just not understandable how the fertility goals of the Government are to be achieved. In the event of failure, the country will suffer. But on the individual level, it is the woman who will be the bigger loser.

Source: Dawn 14 Sept 1984