Population day thoughts

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

JULY 11 was world population day — a day of introspection on where the human race is heading. In Pakistan, we have plenty of soul-searching to do given our rapidly increasing population and its far-reaching impact on every sector of national life. In 50 years, the population has galloped from 33 million to 152 million to make Pakistan the seventh most populous country in the world.

It is now recognized that one of the causes — not the only one — of the country’s economic backwardness, poor education level and social underdevelopment is the population factor. The government now claims that the population growth rate came down to 1.9 per cent in 2004-2005 — at one time it was three per cent. According to the official sources in Pakistan the total fertility rate (TFR), that is the average number of children a woman has in her reproductive years, has come down from 4.8 in 2000-01 to 4.07 in 2004-05.

All this sounds very impressive. But the UNDP which publishes the Human Development Index every year gives different figures in its report of 2004 (the last to be issued). According to this agency, Pakistan’s population will grow at the rate of 2.4 per cent in 2002-2015. TFR is estimated to be 5.1 in 2000-2005.

What does one make of this wide discrepancy between the Pakistan government’s statistics and the UNDP figures? If this is the positive image of the country we are trying to project, it may not necessarily solve all our problems. If by juggling around with numbers, the policy makers succeed in confusing themselves, their strategy will backfire. It will result in lopsided planning as they would never know the precise number for which provision has to be made.

According to the population policy adopted in 2002, the country should achieve replacement level fertility (TFR of 2.1) by the year 2020. For this it seeks the expansion of family planning services in the rural areas in a big way. The problem with the population policy is that it presumes that by making contraceptive services freely available and accessible to all, the government can induce people to adopt the small family norm all too willingly.

But the fact is that there are other factors which determine family size apart from the availability of birth control facilities, financial assistance to agencies working for population planning, inter-personal and other modes of motivational campaigns and the use of all kinds of means to raise awareness.

It is now universally recognized that the demographic pattern of a country is directly linked to the status of its women in society. The population policy does not lay sufficient emphasis on this prerequisite and it is doubtful if Pakistan can really achieve success in slowing down the population growth rate without raising the status of women and making them equal citizens of the state enjoying respect in society.

The theme of this year’s population day, “family planning: equality in decision”, clearly implies that women should have an equal share in deciding the family size and the spacing of children. This right they can only get if they are accepted on an equal level as men. If it is not recognized that women should share the responsibility of decision making with men in every sphere of life, how will they be entrusted with the responsibility of making decisions on family planning issues?

That is not the only aspect calling for attention. When women do not enjoy the same respect as men, who are accorded a higher status that symbolizes honour, esteem and distinction, the girl child is not accorded the same welcome as her brother. Not many parents accept a family consisting only of daughters. Many family planning workers have observed that parents do not consider their family complete until they have had a son or two. This makes family planning a game of chance, with the gender of the offspring being the key determinant factor of family size.

Given the dismal treatment meted out to women in Pakistani society, to hope for a better status for them is like waiting for Godot. True, conventionally women have been the victims of violence, oppression and discrimination for centuries all over the world. Keeping this fact in view, President Pervez Musharraf recently reacted to the protest against the treatment meted out to Mukhtaran Mai by saying that women have been victims of injustice globally and Pakistan should not be singled out in this particular case.

He offered to hold an international conference to invite these women to come and narrate their ordeals and recommend remedial measures. He was also unhappy that although his government had made tremendous headway in emancipating womenfolk through enlightened policies, none of these achievements were kept in mind when Pakistani society was labelled as retrogressive.

This is a strange argument. Mukhtaran Mai’s case symbolizes the woes a woman in Pakistan — especially if she is not from the elite class and has to rely on state institutions and her standing in society to win justice for herself — has to undergo. Whatever reforms the government has instituted, women are still denied justice, the anti-women jirgas continue to operate blatantly and the infamous Hudood Ordinances are still on the statute book.

Given the chauvinistic attitude many members of our society still harbour, the overall social climate is not woman-friendly at all. Admittedly, in many other countries, including the developed ones, women are also gang raped and become victims of violence. But state institutions there stand strongly behind women and seek to provide them justice and redress the wrong done to them. They do not need pressure from foreign governments and world public opinion to spur them into action. That is important if social prejudices and biases against women have to be uprooted and not be institutionalized as has been the case in Pakistan.

Where the government has dismally failed is in providing state support and protection to women when they become victims of atrocities in the name of honour. It is also important that the gender gap in Pakistan is reduced drastically so that giving birth to a girl means the same advantages as having a son. This is not the case at present.

The World Economic Forum is the latest international forum to measure gender gap. Its index uses economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment and health and well-being as the measure. The gender gap index for 58 countries has been calculated on a scale of one to seven (seven representing optimum gender equality). Where does Pakistan figure in this? It is ranked as 56th with a score of 2.90 (Sweden is first with a score of 5.53).

In this climate, would any population planning programme actually work? It is not a coincidence that in all countries, which have succeeded in curbing the population growth rate, the women’s social, economic and legal status has improved concurrently. Pakistan will have to work concertedly on both fronts. This is what a holistic strategy should entail.