Population: children, burden or blessing?

Position:Population growth in Egypt

AT CURRENT RATES of population growth it will take Denmark 753 years to double its population of just over five million people. Meanwhile, Egypt can expect to double its 55m population in just 28 years. To anyone who has experienced the turmoil of Cairo in the rush hour the prospect is inconceivable. The city's resources are already stretched to breaking point and beyond. With little cash and almost endless commitments there is little the government of Hosni Mubarak, or any that succeed it, can do to cater for in excess of 100m Egyptians.

In its efforts to make people aware of this pending population explosion the government has tried a number of approaches. Yet there remains enormous resistance to pressure to restrict the size of families. The reasons are threefold: tradition, religion and ignorance. A 1980 survey among women of child-bearing age found that 53% did not want any more children, yet only 24% of those polled were actually practicing birth control.

Traditionally, a large family was regarded as something of a status symbol in the Arab world. Sons and daughters were regarded as insurance for old age, a means of support and a guarantee that the status quo, or something close to it, would be maintained, even in the event of the death of one parent. Sons would be left to tend the fields and the flock, should a father die, daughters would remain to keep the house and home ticking over in the event of a maternal death. Only a matter of a couple of decades ago, infant mortality rates were high. Families frequently suffered the deaths of numerous children. With the introduction of better health care including vaccinations and neighborhood clinics where parents are able to consult trained medical staff about the prevention and cure of illness and disease, the death rate has been dramatically reduced. In Egypt, for example, figures show that infant mortality is down to 61 per 1,000 live births, almost a third of the figure recorded 20 years ago. The need to produce large numbers of sons and daughters as "insurance" no longer exists yet the habit continues.

Although family planning has gained the support of the mufti, Egypt's highest religious authority, which agreed that it did not contradict Koranic teachings, some hardliners still regard contraception as a sin against Islam. There have, over the last two years, even been incidents of murder against people involved in the promotion of family planning.

IPPF, the International Planned...

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