Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2008
Issue No. 902
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Population woes

By Salama A Salama

Controlling the birth rate is a recurring issue in Egypt. But for some reason, family planning ventures into public debate in an erratic manner. We suddenly remember it, and then suddenly forget it. Recently, we have picked up that long forgotten train of thought. We're appealing to the public to listen. We're telling them how hard it is to be happy and many at the same time. Unfortunately, the public has other matters to worry about. The public is grappling with economic hardship and a million other things.

Family planning is not something that you can shove in people's faces with essays and speeches. You don't just mobilise preachers and design custom-made television programmes and have it over with. What is needed is a specific plan that is well funded. What are also needed are programmes that reach out into people's homes.

The government is trying to raise awareness through the media -- not exactly the most effective way of reaching out to the poor and under-educated masses that are the main participants in population growth. You have to be really optimistic to expect the media to change behavioural patterns in the downtrodden inner city; to think that people in the under-serviced neighbourhoods on the outskirts of a large city would take time to consider the significance of a television advertisement or a newspaper article. Most of those are not into reading. Many are illiterate or semi-illiterate. You can tell them all you want about the delicate balance between population growth and per capita income. It will make no difference.

The government says it wants every Egyptian family to stick to two children, but its arguments fail to connect with janitors, impoverished peasants, small bureaucrats, or disenfranchised women in the far parts of southern Egypt. Fancy advertisements may look good on television but doesn't mean a thing for those who think of a big family as act of nature or even a religiously ordained duty. Those people are not going to listen when told to "think again and have a great life".

Family planning succeeded in the past because it was funded. When we sent social workers to villages to raise awareness, when we offered birth control free of charge, we made a difference. But once foreign funding stopped, the government gave up. If the government wants the people to pay attention it has to put its money where its mouth is. It has to offer incentives, healthcare, free food, or cash prizes to small families. The government can allow abortion under medical supervision. It can change textbooks in schools. It can teach prospective couples about birth control.

It is no use comparing our experience with that of China and India, for the legal bans introduced there and elsewhere are out of the question here. But we cannot keep haranguing families steeped in tradition and beset by misery, poverty and despair. We should reach out to our poor and downtrodden. We should offer them the education they deserve and a sense of belonging. Population growth will slow down only when standards of living are higher, the quality of life is better, and everyone knows that their decisions matter. Personal responsibility is a major part of family planning. That's why we should learn how to listen more and talk less. A sense of belonging can change things.

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