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Egyptian Population Concerns - More of What Men Want

Some people think policies aimed at slowing population growth are foisted on the developing world by heavy-handed industrialized countries. Actually, most population policies are home grown, and sometimes none the better for this. I have a hunch there’s not much gender diversity in the circles that develop them. And those who write about them often fall into the same trap.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak recently endorsed a new $80 million campaign that reportedly focuses on the slogan “Two children per family—a chance for a better life.” Mubarak took office in 1981 in a country with about 45 million people. Egypt today grapples with food scarcity and riotous bread lines in one with 78 million.

Almost all the country’s arable land lies along thin strips on either bank of the Nile River, whose waters traverse nine other countries, all with growing populations, before reaching Egypt. So it’s not hard to understand Mubarak’s concerns about the future of human numbers in the ancient nation. And, as he pointed out, Egypt built the pyramids and evolved one of the world’s first civilizations with a slowly growing population that never exceeded a few million people.

But there’s no evidence that slogans about two-child families slow population growth. You get the impression that a small group of men sat around a table and came up with the slogan idea because it was easier than asking women what might make for smaller families. Many would respond that it takes decent family planning and reproductive services offering a range of healthy contraceptive choices.

Actually, I couldn’t tell in reading the Washington Post story what Mubarak’s campaign involved, because the reporter didn’t relay anything beyond the slogan. Instead, she went on to interview men—and only men, so far I can tell—about why they don’t have smaller families. The journalistic enterprise left a lot to be desired.

One source was a 71-year-old merchant of baby products. He said he had five children and wished for a dozen. “God will feed us,” he added. Other men blamed the government for “not providing,” and suggested children were economically valuable because they often work and earn money—when they can find a job, at least.

Absent from the story were the voices of women (aside from the reporter herself), who bear all Egyptian children. Why not seek out women and ask them: Are you satisfied with the choices you have about childbearing? Do you have good access to contraceptive advice and services that allow you to safely prevent a pregnancy when you want to do so? Are you hoping to become pregnant soon or, if not, are you taking steps you’re comfortable with to avoid doing so?

It’s not every day that heads of state speak up about their population worries, but the topic is on more and more presidential minds these days as food and energy prices soar with no end in sight. When population does emerge as a public issue, journalists can ask the people bearing children what it is they want. The answers might lead to populations that grow more slowly for the best of reasons, because more women became pregnant when they wanted to do so, and only then.