In 2009 the Population Reference Bureau estimated that on average every woman in Pakistan gives birth to four children. That’s four children per family to be raised in a suitable manner to adulthood. Can this be achieved in a country where basic facilities are scarce and where the cost of living, although low compared to many other countries, is still beyond the reach of the average family?
The answer is that the average Pakistani family cannot and does not achieve this goal. Pakistan has high infant and maternal mortality rate due to inadequate health and sanitation facilities and a dearth of safe drinking water. It possesses a low literacy rate and, where available, particularly in the public sector, an extremely poor standard of education. To work on providing basic facilities is an obvious solution but even if current levels of corruption and disinterestedness permit, Pakistan cannot afford this option unless its population is reduced.
Several countries have controlled their population growth, some over generations and others more arbitrarily and rapidly. Europe is an example of the first and China of the second.
Prior to the 1970s the Chinese people were encouraged to have several children. As a result China’s population became too large. So in 1978 the government promulgated the ‘One Child Policy’ which was amended this year in October allowing couples to have two instead of the one child only. China claims to have prevented about 400 million births as a result of the one child policy, allowing citizens who complied with it the benefit of increased access to education, childcare and healthcare. This is what we need, but there is as always another side to the coin.
An aging population means that fewer people work to support the many. In China’s case it is feared that this will impact the Chinese economy in the near future. Giving in to the same fear France, with no population growth, came up with policies to encourage families to have three children. It offered financial incentives, a sum close to the minimum wage to mothers during a one year maternity leave following the birth of the third child, reductions on train fares and income tax, three years of paid leave for either parent, and government subsidised daycare for children under three. As a result France now has the highest population growth in Europe.
Population planning may lead to a skewed gender balance. According to a planning report there will be 30 million more men than women in China ten years from now. Traditionally, the Chinese, like some Pashtun tribes do in Pakistan, paid a ‘bride price’, which now that Chinese women are able to choose between several men has risen to include real estate, which is often out of reach of a man and his family.
And then there is the question of aged care.
At the age of sixty Sheng Hailin underwent fertility treatment and became the oldest Chinese woman to give birth when she had twins. Previously, Mrs Hailin had a daughter who died in her late twenties. It was this daughter’s death that prompted Mrs Hailin and her husband to resort to fertility treatment because, as Mrs Hailin said, she wanted another child to ‘survive and free myself from loneliness’. Mrs Hailin had had the one child in compliance with the ‘One Child Policy’.
An estimated one million Chinese families are reported to have lost their sole descendant as a result of the one child policy, and another four to seven million are expected to do so in the next 20 to 30 years. ‘Such families face uncertain futures with no one to help them through old age in a country which emphasises family life,’ says the report.
Because of the one child policy the burden of looking after aged parents and both sets of grandparents now rests with the one child in China. If even this child dies or was never born, there will be no one to care for old parents.
This is not an issue in China alone. We all look to our children to care for us in our old age, more in some societies, less in others, which makes this the most important and poignant issue of all. To make up for a lack of carers within the family the Chinese government gives financial compensation to childless couples. In Europe where the rate of population growth is low there are homes for the elderly. But in Pakistan and other poor countries where the government cannot afford such measures and where most people have inadequate savings for retirement, the elderly are extremely vulnerable.
Care for the elderly is a major reason behind Pakistan’s inflated population. In a poor country with a high rate of infant mortality it is prudent to have several children so that even if two or three die, some remain to look after the parents.
But even several children will not do if they are all daughters since in Pakistan parents traditionally live with the sons, not the daughters. Therefore, those without sons have child after child until they produce sons.
Also, in the poorer segment of the society, burdened as it is with the tradition of dowry, sons are valued as the bread earners while daughters are viewed as liabilities.
For all these reasons and because misguided religious leaders consider birth control to be an irreligious practice, Pakistan has the population figures it does. To raise living standards and eradicate poverty Pakistan must educate its public in the difference between preventing conception and infanticide. This, in addition to providing greater access to birth control, will result in a reduction of the population but only if the people of Pakistan feel they will be adequately looked after in their old age. A drastic one child policy is unnecessary. A two or even an average of three would make a difference. For this it is vital to spend heavily on nursing homes and on care within individual homes. Carers must be trained and agencies set up to provide them, and both carers and agencies must be supervised. This is vital for the elderly, also for those increasing number of persons whose children have left the country.
But first the government of Pakistan has to accept where its priorities lie and be willing to act. These measures are not tangible and are not as visible as others but it is these that will take people within reach of education, health and progress. Metro buses, underpasses and bridges are all very convenient and flashy and they appear to take people somewhere but in reality they leave them standing exactly where they are: on the brink of annihilation. It is time we took a good look at the elephant in the room that is overpopulation, an elephant consuming everything in sight but so far studiously ignored.