Birth Control in Afghanistan

The underlying idea that lowering Afghanistan’s fertility rate would help it develop economically makes a lot of sense. Especially in an overwhelmingly rural country, the tendency is for a rapid increase in population to lead to falling living standards.

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That said, the specific method of trying to do this by talking to male religious leaders about birth control seems to me to be at odds with most of what we know about this subject. As a recent Economist story on fertility trends emphasized, women in the developing world generally have more children than they want to. When we see falling fertility rates, it’s normally a result of women being empowered to make more decisions about their own lives:

A surprising amount is known about how many children parents want, thanks to a series of surveys by the Demographic and Health Surveys programme. The picture it paints is of huge numbers of unplanned pregnancies. In Brazil, for example, the wanted fertility rate in 1996 (the most recent year available) was 1.8; the actual fertility rate then was 2.5. In India the wanted rate in 2006 was 1.9, the actual one, 2.7. In Ghana the figures for 2003 were 3.7 and 4.4. The rule seems to be that women want one child fewer than they are having (except in some rich countries, where they say they want more). […]

That points to another big reason why fertility is falling: the spread of female education. Go back to the countries where fertility has fallen fastest and you will find remarkable literacy programmes. As early as 1962, for example, 80% of young women in Mauritius could read and write. In Iran in 1976, only 10% of rural women aged 20 to 24 were literate. Now that share is 91%, and Iran not only has one of the best-educated populations in the Middle East but the one in which men and women have the most equal educational chances. Iranian girls aged 15-19 have roughly the same number of years of schooling as boys do. Educated women are more likely to go out to work, more likely to demand contraception and less likely to want large families.

Of course, the case of China and the one-child policy does show that massive coercion works as well. But the problem in Afghanistan is almost certainly the view that how many children a woman should have is a decision that should be made by men. Just talking to men about making that decision in a different way is unlikely to address the issue. Of course, sending girls to school is a controversial issue in Afghanistan, but if the Islamic Republic of Iran was capable of overseeing a massive increase in women’s educational opportunities, then such things can’t be inconsistent with culturally conservative Islamism in any particularly straightforward sense.