For a country that shuns sex education on the basis that it erodes moral values, the number of unwanted pregnancies in Pakistan are staggering. According to a 2012 figure by the Population Council, 4.2 million of the nine million pregnancies were unwanted. As much as 54 percent of these resulted in back alley abortions. As a conservative society that rejects abortions on a religious basis, something somewhere is terribly messy. It is no surprise that family planning is paramount in saving lives but the biggest hurdle in implementing the wisdom and the science behind it is religious conservatism. It is as if proponents argue that a good Muslim woman is one who is serially pregnant, severely anaemic and completely absolved of the rights over her own uterus.
Tragically, the government of Pakistan, which had once been lauded for running a successful campaign for family planning education in the 1960s, is now effectively sitting on its hands as we boast some of the world’s most horrendous maternal and infant mortality rates. The Auyb government did this despite the fight from the religious right. Pakistan has also had perhaps the greatest number of policy shifts when it comes to population planning. What makes the recent governments so callous in this regard? The policies Ziaul Haq’s era introduced are said to have set back the programme tremendously. One theory is that with the geopolitical crisis Pakistan now finds itself in, it does not want a campaign that works aggressively towards something religious parties oppose. If this is true, we are selling our silence for the glory of an ideology that is probably a bigger killer than terrorism, AIDS or nationwide traffic accidents. Appeasement in other aspects of social and political conditions may cause tragic results but, in this regard, is akin to silent mercury poisoning — the entire system disintegrates over a longer period of time.
Experts profess that readily available abortion medication shifts focus away from family planning, whereas the ultimate objective is to not conceive in the first place if children are already plentiful in a family. Unwanted pregnancies are largely a lower socio-economic class phenomenon. Something that can be managed with education is sadly played out in the most cruel and inhuman form. Children should be brought into a world that does not fail them and where their mothers are whole, not a fraction of who they used to be. The solution to the unwanted pregnancies issue is therefore educating people, particularly mothers, that birth control is healthy and safe with controllable side effects.
For most poor households, the ultimate dictate on the reproductive curve of the woman is in the man’s hands. This is not just unfair, it reflects incompetence at a societal and cultural level for placing the levers of life and death in the hands of someone who has nothing to do with its consequences. Men are likely to have been instructed by the local cleric; the failure is also on the part of our religious institutions for valuing philosophy over millions of dead foetuses. Religious leaders, preferably in conjunction with the government, must collectively dispel the myth that our religion cannot adapt to its times. The first duty is to the life of its citizenry. By being least interested in the proliferation of the misery of our weakest, the government must rise to the occasion and attack this issue with the same zealotry it organises its jalsas (rallies) or the way the army arranged the recent war parade in Islamabad.
Pakistan’s fertility rates exceed those of other neighbouring South Asian countries. The only thing that explains our lagging behind in this regard is deliberate neglect. According to the United Nations Population Fund in Pakistan the following three are specific reasons: a combination of factors like non-availability of services, baseless traditional beliefs and misconception. Half of the married women in Pakistan have never used contraception. In Cairo, in 1994, Pakistan pledged to provide universal access to family planning by 2010. This has not been met. It is not just unwanted pregnancies that are staggering but the ignorance of the empowerment women have gone through in the 21st century is also appalling.
For women to know their rights across the board, they need a support system and laws that allow this right to be exercised. Waiting for conservative elements to change and come around will require more light years than we have. The stakes are high and the cost of launching an effective national campaign relatively low. We must act now to ensure that each child brought into the world has a fair shot at a safe and protected life.