Status of women and family size

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE population welfare department of the NWFP has chalked out plans to bring down the population growth rate in the province from 2.19 per cent to 1.84 per cent in the next three years. This move has apparently come as a result of pressure from foreign donors who have impressed on Islamabad that without controlling the population growth rate, Pakistan cannot make any progress.

This is a truism any thinking person should know. Some obvious facts can be stated here. With 3.14 million children being added to the country’s population every year, Pakistan would have to generate an additional GNP of $1.55 billion just to keep the GNP per capita at the current level of $492.

In the NWFP the literacy rate is a measly 35.4 per cent. In 1998 it had three million children of four years and below. In three years the figure had gone up to 3.2 million. To educate the extra numbers and the backlog of out of school children, at least 19,000 more primary schools are required. It may be pointed out that on an average only a 1,000 plus new primary schools are opened all over the country every year.

At this rate, whatever economic progress is made is neutralized by the high population growth rate. It leaves us running fast and yet remaining in the same place — to use the analogy in Alice in Wonderland.

It is, therefore, a positive development that the MMA government in Peshawar has finally woken up to the dire implications of the population explosion for the province. This is to be welcomed since it means that the clergy in that province, where its hold is strong, has come round to accepting the importance of small families and the need to reduce the fertility rate. The vital element, however, is the strategy adopted.

From what we are told about the plan, it seems that a holistic approach is not on the cards. The thrust is towards inducting more doctors (from 3,310 to 3,460), enhancing the health centres from 14,000 to 17,000, health outlets from 1,200 to 1,280, homeopaths from 2,210 to 2,260 and mobile units from 19 to 30.

One can gather from the published report that the government is trapped in the same pitfalls as has been the case with so many population plans adopted by previous administrations in Pakistan. It is erroneously believed that by making contraceptives easily available through medical practitioners it is possible to lower the population growth rate. But is this always the case?

First of all making contraceptives easily accessible may help in increasing the contraceptive prevalence to a small extent only. The old saying of taking the horse to the trough but not being able to make it drink holds true in this case. Physicians may be good motivators but can they overcome the resistance which the population programme faces from the wider social environment? It has now been proved beyond doubt that religious beliefs hardly come in the way of acceptance of birth control since most people who have taken part in surveys have not cited ideological beliefs as the answer to the question why they did not restrict the number of their children.

This should explode the myth perpetuated by many that Islam has been a factor in the failure of the population programme in Pakistan. Gavin W. Jones and Dr Mehtab Karim in their book Islam, the State and Population also confirm this when they write, “Clearly, contrary to the views of some earlier commentators, Islam itself is no barrier to low levels of fertility.” They write, “While Islam does encourage all Muslims to marry, it does not forbid the use of contraception… Some Muslim populations have reached replacement level fertility.”

The unrecognized fact is that the major obstacle in the way of the population programme in Pakistan has been the low status of women in society. When women are perceived as second class citizens who do not enjoy the esteem, recognition, and opportunities as men have, why should a majority of parents be satisfied with a girl child?

The woman’s status has come to be hinged to the gender of the child she bears. If she has a son it bestows on her a position of honour. But woe betide a mother who bears daughters and fails to have a son. Similarly, the education of women has a positive impact on the fertility rate as does their gainful employment. Women who are highly educated and are working tend to have fewer children.

The NWFP population plan appears to be ignoring these factors. A society, which perceives its women as chattel in the possession of men, would hardly care to educate them or let them work and attain economic independence. The image the NWFP has projected of itself in terms of its approach to women has not been one which would inspire much hope for women and the population planning programme.

In a society where a large number of girls are not sent to school, where there are pockets where women are not allowed to go and vote and where a large number of women are not allowed to go out and work because Islam supposedly prohibits it, can one expect the fertility rate to come down?

Hence the idea of setting up contraceptive services outlet, which is a good one, may not produce the optimum results. It is important to adopt a holistic approach, especially in terms of the treatment of women. It is time the MMA recognized the status accorded to women in Islam. The distorted view generally presented by the clergy is actually designed to perpetuate the control of the vested interests in a patriarchal society.

A woman burdened with multiple pregnancies and a large number of children to rear can hardly be expected to show any independence in her approach to life. She is not in a position to struggle for her emancipation. This suits the men who derive advantages from keeping women in a state of suppression.

Until the religious parties which are members of the MMA radically change their views towards women, the population programme cannot be a success in the NWFP or elsewhere.