What demographic winter?

By Memoona Qazi
Published in The News on April 15, 2023

The population discourse around the world has witnessed quite a turnaround recently as the demographic debate seems to be highlighting countries’ concerns around shrinking populations.

Most countries in Europe and North America and even Russia are already experiencing what some demographers call a ‘demographic winter’ – a worldwide decline in birth rates. More recently, Asian countries seem to have entered this scenario too as countries like Japan, South Korea and even China are witnessing declining birth rates at a much faster pace than expected – total fertility rates (TFR) for the three countries are 1.3, 0.8 and 1.2 respectively.

However, if we look at South Asian countries, it may appear that the demographic debate is still about overpopulation rather than demographic winter or, in other words, shrinking populations. According to the UN report, ‘World Population Prospects 2022’, Central and South Asia are expected to be the most populous regions in the world by 2037. This comes as no surprise when we look at the list of the most populous countries in the world and see India and Pakistan among the top five.

India, however, claims in its recent national fertility and health survey that it has reached replacement-level fertility. With a TFR of 2.1, Indian women on average were giving birth to 2.1 children, according to the ‘World Population Data Sheet, 2022’. But where does Pakistan stand in this situation? With a TFR of 3.5, Pakistan has a long road ahead to reach replacement-level fertility unlike its neighbouring countries – India (TFR 2.1) and Bangladesh (TFR 2.0). Pakistan is only second to Afghanistan in the entire region of South Asia.

A report by GIS titled ‘The implications of a shrinking Asia’ points Pakistan out as a “great exception” in Asia’s case, whereby the country is estimated to reach the 366 million population mark by 2050 and a future projection to 490 million by the year 2100 with its current population growth rate of 2.4 per cent.

This presents an alarming situation for the country, especially in the wider context when we look at how our neighbouring countries are doing on both the demographic and economic fronts. Bangladesh has emerged as a success story on its recent economic takeoff, and population control has played a key role in making that a reality. With an increased focus on women’s education and empowerment, along with a robust family planning programme, Bangladesh has experienced a fertility decline. This can serve as a lesson for countries with high fertility rates, especially Pakistan.

Policies aimed at increasing women’s education coupled with comprehensive family planning programmes – which ensure not only the provision of contraceptives to women but also educate them about their use – can help bring down Pakistan’s fertility.

It is high time we realized that our swelling population size is not only posing a demographic threat, but also acts as a major roadblock in the country’s already stalled economic prosperity.

Although some initiatives have been taken to control population growth – especially the formation of a task force on population and family planning in 2018 – the progress on the targets of the task force seems quite sluggish. Similarly, the National Security Policy of Pakistan which talks about managing the population has failed to provide a roadmap on how to deal with exponential growth in population.

If I were to voice my thoughts here as an aspiring demographer and a student of development studies, I believe there seems to be a disconnect between the policy objectives and the ground reality. For instance, as far as the issue of low contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) of the country is concerned, while it is true that many women in Pakistan do not have access to contraceptives I believe that education and awareness regarding the use of contraceptives is equally – or perhaps even more – important than just making it readily available.

Women in Pakistan tend to reveal a significantly high preference for having sons than daughters and thus as pointed in a 2015 report by the Population Council, many women admitted that they would use birth control only after they give birth to a son. It is no wonder why there is a relatively large family size in Pakistan and these larger families have more girls in most cases. Consequently, this disproportionate preference for boys drastically reduces any efforts to slow down the country’s fertility rate.

It is therefore important to realize that just the provision of contraceptives is not enough; our situation requires us to approach the matter from a slightly different, broader lens to arrive at the desired outcome of controlling population growth.

We need to change the views and beliefs of people around using contraceptives the right way, which means changing their attitudes of having a strong and persistent preference for sons. In this regard, there is a need to bring religious scholars and ‘ulemas’ on board when devising a population strategy as they can play an integral role by educating the communities in their localities about the dangers of their rigid behaviour and the good that can emerge from women’s education and empowerment.

While around the world, demographers voice their concerns for the world getting caught up in a demographic winter, as a Pakistani I am more worried about our country experiencing a population explosion. What adds to the worry is that we fail to realize the gravity of the situation, and the extent of challenges this brings – be it on the demographic, social, political, economic or environmental front.

Only when our policymakers and all the stakeholders involved realize the importance of including population management in development and economic discourses can we begin to move in the right direction to deal with these challenges.

The writer is a research assistant at the Lahore School of Economics and can be reached at: qazimemona94@gmail.com

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