Iran’s plummeting birth rates

Despite its fundamentalist Islamic reputation Iran has experimented with birth control with some unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences.
Michael Cook | Aug 11 2009 | comment  

If demography is destiny, the family of Farzaneh Roudi is a snapshot of Iran’s past, present and future. A program director at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington DC, Ms Roudi was born in Iran. Her grandmother had 11 children, her father had 6 and she has 2.

Her profile is not unusual in Iran, where women give birth to fewer than 2 children, on average. This is one of the most remarkable demographic shifts in world history. Its fertility rate has declined from 7 children per woman in 1980 to 1.9 today – a decline of 70 percent in the space of a single generation. And about 80 percent of married women in Iran use contraception -- the highest rate among all the countries in the Middle East.

These staggering statistics confound stereotypes about Iran. Even though the Western media depicts this nation of 70 million as a teeming cauldron of Islamic fundamentalism and social and moral conservatism, the trend to lower birthrates began long ago. In 1967 Mohammad Reza Shah signed the Tehran Declaration. This acknowledged family planning as a human right and programs were quickly established. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution which booted out the Shah, they were dismantled for being pro-Western. But contraceptive use was not totally banned and Imam Khomeini and other Ayatollahs did grant fatwas allowing it as a health measure.

Then came the calamitous eight-year between Iran and Iraq, in which Iran suffered as many as a million casualties. In these drastic circumstances, a large population was regarded as an asset and the government promoted large families.

But after the war, there was a 180-degree turn. Shocked by the rapidly growing population, the government vigorously promoted family planning as a path to economic development. Women were encouraged to space births and to stop at three. Although there was no overt coercion, a 1993 social engineering law penalised large families by terminating family allowances, health benefits and maternity leave for families with four or more children.

The result was unprecedented. Iran’s fertility figures skidded dramatically. The fertility rate for women in rural areas dropped from 8 children per woman in 1977 to 2 children in 2006. According to the leading expert on Iranian demography, Professor Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, of the University of Teheran, simultaneously young couples were delaying having children, married women were spacing births further apart, and older women stopped bearing children.

Even the Shi’ite clergy supported this massive social change. Imam Khomeini and other ayatollahs granted fatwas allowing contraceptive use.

In fact, nowadays there seems to be a national consensus that small families are good families. Back in 2006 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had called for a baby boom. "I am against saying that two children are enough. Our country has a lot of capacity. It has the capacity for many children to grow in it. It even has the capacity for 120 million people," he declared. "Westerners have got problems. Because their population growth is negative, they are worried and fear that if our population increases, we will triumph over them."

But this fizzled. His advisors had a quiet word with him and Ahmadinejad turned his mind to other ways of threatening the West.

In any case, Iranian families nowadays resemble the despised Westerners, Ms Roudi told MercatorNet. "Life is not easy nowadays. A lot of the time in the cities both husband and wife work. Their kids have piano classes or karate classes. It’s very normal for families to have only 1 or 2 kids. If you see a young family with 3 children -– that’s a big family."

As a result, Iran’s population profile looks remarkably like a Christmas tree, with a huge bulge between the ages of 15 and 30. Ms Roudi believes that this may help to explain the upheaval in Tehran after the recent disputed election. Most of the protesters were young people.

"Unemployment and high costs of living, coupled with social and political restrictions, have made it increasingly difficult for young Iranians. The sudden uprising that erupted following the disputed presidential election of June 12 is a manifestation of all the underlying frustrations," she writes in the PRB’s population blog.

Paradoxically, they may be frustrated by Iran’s extraordinary achievement in educating its youth. "The successful Iranian uphill battle to improve education in spite of exploding numbers of youngsters and without international assistance must be viewed as a major achievement in human development," writes Professor Abbasi in a recent report. And to further shake Western preconceptions, 65 percent of students admitted to government universities in 2007 were women.

Appalling repression and electoral manipulation after the recent election has entrenched the hold of President Ahmadinejad and his conservative allies on power. But eventually the extraordinary bulge of educated youth will transform Iran, Professor Abbasi, who also teaches at Australian National University, told MercatorNet. "The rapid improvement of education in Iran is likely to generate powerful forces toward more democratic rights," he feels. "There is a high probability that over the coming years, Iran will transform naturally into a modern democracy."

The youth bulge could benefit Iran’s economy. Demographers speak of a "demographic dividend" -– a not-to-be-repeated large number of energetic, well-educated young workers who can contribute to economic growth. Unfortunately unemployment amongst 18 to 30-year-olds is running at about 25 percent. This means that the regime is squandering its opportunity.

There are other shadows, as well. One is drug addiction amongst youth.

Even though it sends drug dealers to the gallows, Iran could have as many as 2 million addicts – nearly 3% of the total population. No other country in the world even comes close to that figure.

"Drug addiction is going up by a horrible rate," a doctor told the Los Angeles Times. "When I was young, in a village or a poor neighborhood you'd hear people say, 'I know an addict.' But now drugs are so pervasive, people say, 'I know somebody who is not an addict.' You criminalise beer, you criminalise girlfriends. You close everything to the young, but the young need a way open, an outlet. We doctors are so angry and frustrated at the government."

And then there is the ticking time-bomb of population ageing. By mid-century, these youthful protesters will be frail and elderly as the bulge works its way to the top of the population pyramid. As in Western Europe and other countries with below-replacement fertility, there will be a relatively small working-age population to support them. The question is how Iran’s government will finance their old age. "I’m sure they will not be prepared," sighed Professor Abbasi.

Iran, like many other countries, is discovering that reducing fertility brings unexpected changes.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. For more about demography on MercatorNet, visit our Demography is Destiny blog.

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