By Zubeida Mustafa
THE census is one of the trickiest issues in Pakistan today because of its political and economic implications. Our policymakers have found a way around the problem. They adopt an ostrich-like approach thus hoping to wish away the challenge that the 190.3 million (World Population Review) people pose.
No census has been held in Pakistan since 1998 — the preliminary housing survey that was undertaken in 2011 was aborted when it became too controversial. Now it has been reported that the census planned for 2016 and announced in March is unlikely to be held.
The government cannot be condoned for its negligence. Policymaking has to go on and some numerical guidelines always help. Despite the apathy of the official sector, demographic statistics have registered an improvement — but not enough to make an impact.
At the core of the population problem is our failure to empower women.
Hence the Population Council’s efforts to educate the media — as it did in its recent workshop in Quetta — is laudable. But it is more important for the Council to innovate its strategy in line with new information that emerges from different sources. It should not fall victim to myths.
It is clear that public awareness about population issues has been successfully created over the years. The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2012-13 confirms that 98pc of the people questioned were informed about various contraceptives. Hence to harp on awareness-raising is redundant. To suggest that people be asked about their knowledge of family planning before marriage, as a speaker at the Quetta workshop did, amounted to adding insult to injury.
The real injury is the failure of the government to make contraceptives accessible and affordable to all classes. Mercifully, others took note of this problem at the workshop. According to the PDHS, Pakistan has an unmet need of 20pc. In other words, there are parents who do not want more children but contraceptives and clinical/advisory services are not readily available. The PDHS also tells us that only 29pc of non-users were visited by Family Welfare Workers whose job it is to convince non-acceptors about the benefits of family planning and counsel them on the use of contraceptives.
At the core of the problem is our failure to empower women. The PDHS clearly establishes that empowered women can manage their lives better. They can independently take decisions they consider beneficial to their family’s and their own health. They are generally contraceptive users and have fewer children.
But how many women in Pakistan are truly empowered? According to the PDHS only 47pc women are educated (most of these up to primary level), 4pc own land, 11pc own a house and 29pc earn an income. Yet only half of the supposedly empowered women have a say in decision-making in family matters.
A low status robs women of respect and value. Daughters are not preferred over sons. Many women want to continue giving birth to children if they do not have at least two sons. This preference is even stronger in men. In the face of such prejudices, how can a family planning programme succeed? At a population seminar, a woman very explicitly said that she did not want to give birth to daughters because she didn’t want them to suffer the same fate that she had.
All this needs to change and it cannot change until a holistic view is adopted vis-à-vis development. For the population programme to succeed, it is important that women’s empowerment and education be integrated into development. There is also a need to introduce a dynamic policy of reproductive health and child welfare that lowers infant and maternal mortality rates. High mortality rates encourage high birth rates. Above all, a movement for social and attitudinal change that accepts gender equality needs to be launched.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A strategy based on misinformation can never succeed. For instance, a commonly held myth is that religion is a major factor in influencing women’s approach to family planning. But repeated surveys — including the latest PDHS — have confirmed that less than 3pc of the men and women questioned cited religion as the reason for not planning their families. Then why do those trying to play the role of catalysts for change waste their time and money harping on this issue?
They go to ridiculous extremes to play the religion card. Once the Population Council even invited a self-proclaimed proponent of religion and a misogynist to plead their case on television. Not unexpectedly, he began by sensationalising the issue and ridiculing women. Thriving as he does on cheap popularity, he actually hurt the cause he was supposed to be espousing. By his behaviour he confirmed that women in Pakistan face a serious challenge from misogyny which is the biggest barrier in the way of a successful population programme. This has to be fought if population planners really wish to make headway.