Pakistan: Population planning and ulema’s role

A 3 day international conference on population and development has been held in Pakistan, attended by 54 ulema from 29 countries.
It is commendable that the Pakistan government has recognized the importance —even though belatedly — of involving the ulema in the population planning programme to make it more effective.
The three-day international ulema conference on population and development being held in Islamabad is the first step in that direction. There are 54 ulema from 29 countries who are attending the conference and the prime minister in his inaugural address has appealed to them to adopt an enlightened and moderate view of Islam, especially on the population issue. Although some hardline Islamic scholars have not supported the use of contraception, there has been no collective or institutional resistance from the majority to family planning. Apart from the fatwas issued from various centres of Islamic learning endorsing family planning, the basic fact is that the countries where these centres are located have registered a swift decline in their population growth rates, notably, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The role of the ulema in the population sector can have a profound impact because they are the most powerful agents of communication and can mould public opinion in the country through the mosques and their Friday sermon. Studies have shown that given the low rate of literacy in Pakistan, the reach of the mosques is very wide and the message they deliver to the congregation is a key factor in influencing popular views about vital issues. Countries where the ulema have been participating in the population programme by mobilizing support for it, such as Indonesia, the demographic growth rate has fallen remarkably. Hence it is important that a discourse should be started with the Friday prayer leaders to persuade them to actively cooperate in mobilizing support for the programme. They need to give two messages —both in line with Islamic beliefs — to their audience which should form the underpinning of the population drive. First, Islam does not oppose family planning as is widely believed now and the small family norm is the need of the hour. Secondly, the imams also need to convince their congregations that women have been accorded a dignified and equal status in Islam. This is a key factor that is generally ignored. Many parents do not limit the number children not because of any religious constraints but because they consider their family incomplete without a son or two.

For the population programme to be effective it is important that the government adopts a holistic approach to it. While the ulema play a motivating role and change the social attitudes of the people to gender equality and family size, the government will have to improve the contraceptive delivery services in the country, especially the rural areas. The large unmet need — people who want to limit their family size but cannot — low contraceptive availability point to the shortcomings in the delivery services. Fortunately the link between poverty and the high population growth rate is now being recognized. Moreover, as the prime minister pointed out, a burgeoning population obliterates the benefits of social and economic development. In reality all these aspects are interlinked. Low socio-economic development also leads to a high population growth rate. Hence the social sectors should be addressed simultaneously with a vigorous family planning campaign. A higher literacy level and low maternal and infant mortality rates also bring down the fertility rate.