By Zubeida Mustafa
A FEW years ago, when the army operation took place in Swat and many families were displaced, I went to Baldia in Karachi to meet some of them. There I was introduced to a man who told me that he had 19 children. He had two wives. I was awestruck by his virility.
He may have been an exception. But we should not underestimate the reproductive capacity of Pakistanis. According to the Population Council in Islamabad, in 2012 Pakistan had nine million pregnancies of which 4.2m were unintended. Of these 2.25m ended in induced abortions. In other words, over six million babies were born that year.
Although the population growth rate is not as high as it was a few decades ago, we are still paying the price for neglect in the early years. Moreover, the government’s population policy is not as dynamic and effective as it should be. and the population growth rate has been on the rise after it had dipped considerably. The flawed contraceptive coverage strategy has led to this increase. It also accounts for the high rate of abortions and unwanted pregnancies.
Delivery of services should accompany a change in attitudes.
This is a pity because the Population Council reports changes in social attitudes that had previously impacted negatively on population trends. A survey pointed out that men are now more cooperative and inclined to accept the ‘small family’ norm. Couples also refuse to be influenced by other family members especially mothers-in-law who once had quite a say in determining family size. It appears that practical considerations are more important today than the gender of the children.
Above all, religion is no longer cited as a factor in family planning matters as it was once upon a time. With the social environment so favourable to small families it is strange that the contraceptive prevalence rate is growing so slowly. It would have doubled today had there not been a whopping unmet need of 50pc. It inched up to a paltry 35.4pc in 2012-13.
Why these contradictions? The fact is that, as in other sectors, years and years of awareness-raising by the government, NGOs and civil society have driven the message home. Now people have begun to be convinced of the wisdom of having fewer children and educating them. But as it has happened in other walks of life, the government is failing to deliver the services that are needed to optimise awareness.
Similar is the case with the services needed in the education sector. With approximately a six million yearly addition to the number needing schooling facilities, are we providing for them? Even the backlog has not been cleared and according to Unesco, 5.5m children are out of school in Pakistan.
It is perhaps not fully realised that this policy of leaving unmet needs after raising expectations is resulting in severe frustration. Irrespective of what our policymakers may claim, many parents now want to space births, have fewer children and send them to school. They have dreams of a brighter future for their offspring. They also know that medical facilities can save lives and so they demand them. Previously, they would accept infant and child mortality as the will of God. Today, their faith in modern medicine is stronger but the system is failing them.
The fact is that the focus of development policies has been on bringing about behavioural changes that are important if an impact has to be felt on various social sectors. But it is also important that this change in attitudes should be accompanied with the necessary services that are needed to facilitate and vindicate the change. Only thus is it possible to mobilise and motivate the stakeholders. These are sadly missing. Whether it is a failure of governance, lack of political will or absence of funds/corruption — call it what you may — this flawed development strategy has undermined progress.
There is a lot of talk about plans adopted and projects finalised. Every week I receive an email from the Planning Commission describing the projects that have been approved. But they never seem to see the light of day.
On the other hand, young people now have aspirations which they cannot realise without the necessary facilities needed for them to empower themselves to create and exercise choices. Take the case of Shan, a teenager living in Karachi’s Shireen Jinnah Colony when I met him several years ago. He studied in a private school paying a monthly fee of Rs500. He had dreams of “working in an office” sitting behind a computer. He failed to clear his Matriculation exams and is now a sweeper in an apartment block. His ambitions of yesterday have turned into bitter frustration today.
The World Development Report 2015 published by the World Bank is titled ‘Mind, Society and Behaviour’. It describes the process of thinking and decision-making by people and how interventions should be shaped accordingly. In Pakistan’s case, one can well ask, where are the interventions?