Population control: the ‘woman factor’

By Zubeida Mustafa

Population planning has been a highly contentious issue eversince men — as well as women — decided to intervene in the natural process of procreation to regulate demographic trends. The controversy has centred round the strategies adopted and the rationale advanced for slowing down population growth rates.

A new dimension was added to the debate when population became a North-South issue, as the industrialised states afraid of being swamped by Third World immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers began demanding that the developing countries take measures to check what has been termed as the population explosion.

Mr Iqbal Jafar in his thought-provoking article Population control & social justice has identified some of the fallacious arguments that have been advanced by the champions of population planning in the West and the elites in the East, not all of whom are, as rightly pointed out by Mr Jafar, moved by humanitarian concerns or a genuine sympathy for the poverty-stricken masses. They are obviously motivated by their own selfish interests and that would explain their failure to provide social justice which has proved to be the most efficient contraceptive in industrialised societies.

There is, however, another aspect of the matter that many economists, social scientists and demographers somehow tend to ignore. Mr Jafar is no exception. He has failed to take note of the ‘woman factor’ in population planning, which at the micro level has a greater relevance for the female partner. In fact, one of the strongest rationale for encouraging family planning should be its positive implications for women’s health and quality of life.73-07-05-1993.A

It is now universally known that a woman who has fewer children who are judiciously spaced has better health. Maternal mortality as well as infant mortality rises when children come in quick succession. Similarly, a woman who is not chained down by child-bearing and child-rearing in her entire youth can do more to achieve self-fulfilment.

It is true that the socio-economic environment has a profound impact on a family planning programme. But social justice as it is understood today .cannot change the demographic growth pattern unless it focusses specifically on women. It might sound strange but it is a fact born of the patriarchal orientation of most societies that when we speak of social justice we cannot take it for granted that this would include education and health care for women in equal measure.

The gender gap in many countries is astonishing. Take Pakistan’s case. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report, if 100 men are literate in Pakistan, only 48 women can read and write. The situation on the education front is worse. As against 100 boys only 42 girls are enrolled in secondary schools. The gap in health care is manifested by the fact that life expectancy of the Pakistani woman is the same as that of man, when biological factors deem that it should have been more. In political decision-making, which the UNDP measures in terms of female parliamentary representation, the gender gap in Pakistan, at least since 1990, is appalling.

One significant fact that emerges from the UNDP report is that even when social justice is provided to the people you cannot assume that the women are getting a fair deal. (See attached Table).Saudi Arabia and Oman provide more health care, access to water and education to their people, but the disparity between the sexes is very great.)

Conversely, a country not exactly a role model in the provision of social justice might have a more positive approach towards its women. It might give its women greater parity in sharing the meagre resources available. (See Sierra Leone in Table).

Hence in the population planning context, social justice must target specifically on women. It also clearly emerges from the UNDP report mentioned above that countries which provide a fair measure of social justice (education, health care, employment, old age benefits) to their populations in statistical terms but discriminate against women continue to have a high population growth rate.

Hence if population growth rates have to be slowed down, governments must address the fundamental issue of the emancipation of women. The UNFPA Director-General, Dr Nafis Sadik, has consistently been stressing this aspect of the matter in all her policy statements. The National Institute of Population Studies (Islamabad) in its Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 1990-1991 has also found that women who are educated tend to have fewer children. Fifty-one per cent of women with secondary/higher education said that they did not want any more children, when only 38 per cent of uneducated women wanted to stop childbearing.

More importantly, the population question must be addressed in the context of the fundamental rights of women to have control over their bodies. They must have the right to determine the number of children they would like to give birth to and the interval at which they should be spaced. In the NIPS survey over six per cent of the female respondents said that they cannot plan their families because their husbands were opposed to birth control.

In yet another way the status of women has a very direct bearing on the success of a population planning programme in Pakistan. Until women are accorded the esteem in society they deserve as human beings, a girl child will not be accepted as an asset. Hence parents will continue to have children until they have the desired number of sons. The NIPS survey found that half of the married women who wanted another child preferred a son, while 92 per cent of those with two daughters wanted a boy. This is a major factor determining the large size of Pakistani families.

Social justice can produce an impact on population growth rates only when women are also equal recipients. Moreover, the need is not simply to raise their status in the framework of the State. A concerted effort must be made to accord them an equal role at the social and family level.

Source” Dawn 07 May 1