Thomas Robert Malthus predicted that the world population was bound to outstrip food production, leading to a state of “natural distress.” This was in 1798. In order to strike a balance between global natural resources and population, Malthus was far ahead of his times in proposing family planning through “moral restraint,” that is, rallying men to delay marrying until later. Subsequent research has proven Malthus right on the significance of family planning, which is today inextricably linked with economic and security challenges in developing countries, like terror-stricken Pakistan.
A runaway population growth rate without a compensatory economic growth rate has a direct bearing on a state’s ability to survive. The 2009 Failed States Index by the Fund for Peace, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., showed that “failed” states had a total fertility rate—the number of children per woman—at five, while the then global average was 2.6. The 2013 Failed States Index, where Pakistan features at No. 13, connects the risk of radicalization to the lack of economic opportunities and unemployment. When states are unable to afford the basics for their people (schooling, nutrition, health care, etc.) the denudation of the state is hastened by the employment of its people for radical causes. It’s also now evident that having more children results in more, not less, poverty.
Since Pakistan’s future is very closely tied to its demography, no policy framework to deal with its economic and security challenges can be either sustainable or comprehensive without recognizing the significance of family planning.
Pakistan began its family-planning program in the mid-1950s with the support of several international agencies. In the ’90s, it launched a population welfare strategy, which later morphed into other initiatives like the Family Planning and Primary Health Care Initiative of 1994 and the Maternal and Child Health Care Project of 2005. The results are mixed. While Pakistan’s children-per-woman figure has gone down from 6.7 in 1970-1975 to the present-day 3.3, the population growth rate still remains a challenge. In 1947, Pakistan (including East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) had a combined population of 32.5 million and was the 13th most populous country in the world. With an average population growth rate of 3 percent from 1950 to 1980, 2 percent after 2000, and 1.7 percent today, at some 180-million strong, Pakistan is the world’s 6th most populous country.
Population growth depends on several factors, including education and income brackets. In Pakistan, according to last year’s Demographic and Health Survey, the average number of children for each uneducated woman was 4.4. For those with a secondary education or higher, the figure was 2.2. The survey found that educated Pakistani women were also 1.4 times more likely to use contraception. In terms of income, some 46 percent of women in higher-income households were found to use contraception. For women in the poorest households, the figure was 26 percent.
Attempts to bring down the fertility rate have not been as significant in Pakistan as they have been in Bangladesh—its children-per-woman figure has improved from 6.2 in 1970-1975 to 2.5. Bangladesh unified its national health care and population management program in 2001, and made concerted efforts for the adoption of safe, modern contraceptives through greater outreach and access. Bangladesh’s Contraceptive Prevalence Rate is 61 percent, Pakistan’s is 30 percent. This suggests that the supply-side approach to promoting family planning combined with a clear national commitment can generate positive outcomes.
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution keeps Pakistan from pursuing a cohesive national program for family planning. The amendment laudably recognized the socioeconomic rights of Pakistani citizens, including the right to an education, as a basic human right. However, it also devolved many previously federally-held responsibilities—including population planning and management—to the provinces. The Bangladesh model is but one example of why this responsibility ought to be nationally-led.
The jobless young pose a serious security risk for Pakistani society.
Lack of nationally-led population planning and management will continue to pile on pressure on the economy and urban centers. An annual GDP growth rate of 6 to 8 percent is required to absorb the 1.3 to 1.5 million new entrants joining the labor market each year. The urban-rural divide is also troubling. In 1951, 6 million people or 17 percent of the country lived in urban areas. Today, the figure is over 66 million or 37 percent of the population residing in cities ill equipped to cope with such numbers. The recent rise in urban unemployment and the resentments exacerbated by visible income disparities in crumbling urban centers jeopardize Pakistan’s security. Disillusioned, barely-scraping-by youth—and some 60 percent of Pakistanis are aged 30 or younger—contribute most damagingly to the senseless, and ceaseless, radicalization of society.
On the bright side, the 2013 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey shows that almost all married women and 95 percent of married men were aware of at least one modern family-planning method, and that between 20 to 25 percent of married women wanted to wait before having another child or even to limit the number of children.
Al-Azhar University’s International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research also lends support to family planning, an idea still viewed by some Pakistanis as a Western attempt to outnumber Muslims. The Cairo-based Islamic university has concluded that spacing births through modern family-planning methods is acceptable to all schools of Islamic thought since it reduces physical and socioeconomic hardships. In Pakistan, women desire fewer children than men do. And since many Islamic scholars have stressed on the importance of the wife’s consent regarding the total number of children she should have, this scholarly consensus is rather exceptional and should provide leaders of Muslim-majority states with enough ideological ballast for a national family-planning agenda.
Pakistan urgently requires a sustained and comprehensive policy to scale down its population growth rate. The sketchy and fading commitment of successive governments past has been a major reason for less-than-stellar population management. Supply-side weaknesses must be addressed through a nationally-administered outreach and access program that can fulfill unmet demand for family planning services. Population planning has to be seen for what it is: another pillar to ensure the national integrity and security of Pakistan. This will involve working on, among others, maternal and infant mortality, female literacy, and the status of women in society. A rights-based approach backed by Islamic jurisprudence on the subject and the buy-in of husbands is critical for the success of a nationally-willed, family planning program. None of this will be easy going. But the alternative is far worse.
Zafar is the founder of Kashf Foundation. From our June 21-28, 2014, issue.