Wednesday, June 7, 2023
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Population anxiety in Pakistan

Dr. Luay Shabaneh Years ago, I asked my mother why she had nine kids, and she responded that her mother and mother-in-law kept telling her that it is the only way to avoid polygamy; some children and all husbands are disobedient. Twenty years later, my Pakistani Canadian friend, Saima, when she consulted me on the idea of freezing her eggs, argued that she could not afford to have a baby and pursue her education and career. Her income is insufficient to cover the expenses of a baby in Montreal or New York, and support is not made available either by her husband or through affordable babysitting and kindergarten services. Both Saima and my mother, with a two-decade gap between them, were pushed to take their reproductive decision by economic and societal social norm factors far from national or global population growth trends. We live in an almost polarised demographic world; population anxiety is at both poles of increasing and decreasing population. The common feature is that both are focused on the outcome (population size and fertility levels) away from the root causes and the dynamics through which reproductive decisions are made. In the past, families wanted to have more children because of child mortality and the need for a workforce, and to have more fighters in a world made of a tribal system that linked all good values, such as courage, strength, decisiveness, etc, to men and the risks of failing, such as keeping honour and avoiding stigma and shame, to women. Therefore, we inherited from them the preference for boys over girls. Governments with high population growth rates, including Pakistan, got anxious because of their inability to create enough jobs and provide decent education and health services to all and the security threats they might face with increasingly growing unemployed youth. Therefore, they direct their thinking around reducing fertility. While governments with declining populations got anxious about the future of the nation. For example, during an informal chat, an ambassador from an Eastern European country hinted at a sort of blame on UNFPA for advocating an increased dose of women’s rights to the extent that some women have lost direction and forgotten their reproductive duty to produce more babies for the nation’s existence. Historically, governments failed to understand or accept the fact that people’s reproductive decisions do not factor in the opinion of politicians, academics and experts regarding population growth – they have their own reasons for having more or fewer children. UNFPA launched the annual report on the State of World Population last week, identifying rising population anxiety and urging a radical rethink of how countries address changing demographics. The report notices that increasing population anxieties are widespread, and governments are increasingly adopting policies aimed at raising, lowering or maintaining fertility rates. But efforts to influence fertility rates are very often ineffective and can erode women’s rights. The landmark report called for a radical rethink of how population numbers are framed, urging politicians and media to abandon overblown narratives about population booms and busts. Instead of asking how fast people are reproducing, leaders should ask whether individuals, especially women, are able to freely make their own reproductive choices – a question whose answer, too often, is no. Women’s bodies should not be held captive to population targets, says UNFPA Executive Director Dr Natalia Kanem, adding, “To build thriving and inclusive societies, regardless of population size, we must radically rethink how we talk about and plan for population change.” Family planning must not be used as a tool for achieving fertility targets; it is a tool for empowering individuals. Women and couples should be able to choose if, when and how many children they would like to have, free from the coercion of pundits and officials. Governments must first realise that deciding to have children is an individual and couple’s decision, not a community or a public affair. Governments must realise that any attempt to intervene in this matter will face push-back from society for religious, cultural, liberal, political and many other reasons, and the outcome will be a distortion of the demography of society that leaves negative socioeconomic multiplier effects. The proper approach is the human rights that promote the fact that getting babies is an individual decision. Branding such decisions as good or bad is a bad idea; people should freely decide if they want to get babies and choose how many. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the dynamics in which families take decisions, and governments should do their best to ensure the right people make their own reproductive choices; women should not be pushed to get pregnant and not be forced to become infertile; they should take their decisions in the context of an approach of bodily integrity and autonomy. Governments also need to ensure that whatever the decision is, families are provided with all proper services, information and understanding to implement their own reproductive decision. Women are not accountable for the nation’s problems; they are victims of social norms. Nobody should hold women accountable for population decline or increase. This matter is an outcome of the societal values shaped over years by the men-led State’s organs, including media, supporting programmes, and the enabling environment to decide. In countries facing population decline like Singapore, Japan, Poland, Germany, etc, we observe the difficulties that women face to have babies without compromising their human capital gains as professionals and human beings whose lives are in accumulated development and progress. In those societies, babies can come once women feel that they do not have to choose to get pregnant or continue their progress in life; when they realise that having another baby will not distort their future and spoil their economic aspirations due to costly childcare, babysitting, education, recreation and getting a healthy child whose mother can continue her own progress. Making the best services, advocacy and information in which women and couples can make informed decisions is the most appropriate approach to address population anxiety. All other alternative attempts proved not to work very well. In a nutshell, enjoying reproductive rights is the key.

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