On May 11th, voters in Pakistan will go to the polls for one of the country’s most important elections in decades. With many experts warning that Pakistan’s economy could be headed for collapse, two issues related to population have emerged. The first is population growth. Many observers warn that Pakistan’s population growth rate, which has increased in recent years, is economically unsustainable. The second issue, and it is related, is the status of women. A lack of gender equity is hindering female participation in the workforce and it is also contributing to stubbornly high birth rates.
Zubeida Mustafa, a two-time winner of our Global Media Awards, has written extensively on both topics. She is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for Dawn, the paper with which she worked as an assistant editor from 1975 to 2008. Dawn is Pakistan’s most widely circulated and influential English language newspaper that was founded in 1947.
In addressing the issue of population as it relates to the upcoming election, she writes, “It doesn’t take rocket science to realise that a rapidly growing population strains the resources of a country and poses a serious hurdle in the way of development strategies.”
She notes, however, that:
There are parties which do not even see a link between a fast-growing population and the failure of the government to provide health and education facilities to the people. The demographic factor drags down economic growth and resource expansion. They are the Awami National Party (quite surprising given its people-centric approach), the Jamaat-i-Islami, the PML-Q and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl. The last-mentioned party’s spokesman orally confirmed the party’s lack of commitment to population issues.
Mercifully, four major parties, the PPP, the PML-N, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are more progressive on the population question. The first three spell out categorically why an effective family planning programme is closely linked to the country’s development in the economic and social sectors….
The PPP and PTI are quite comprehensive in spelling out their strategy. The PTI promises to make the population welfare programme an integral part of the health policy and make quality education and modern contraceptive services available to women.
Mustafa, who has been a long-time champion of women’s rights in Pakistan, warns, however, that all the parties, as part of their population platform, need to make a clearer and stronger commitment to women’s rights, and not just for improved access to contraceptive services. She writes that:
Some speak of educating women because educated women have fewer children on account of their better understanding of contraceptive choices. But that by itself does not change the gender priorities of parents who have a preference for sons. That will change only when women gain social acceptance and recognition.
Issues other than population will no doubt determine the final outcome of the upcoming elections, but the future of Pakistan will be determined in no small part by what future Pakistani governments do to improve contraceptive services and promote gender equity. Let’s hope that the election results will point in the right direction.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, President