Reproductive Health Supplies, Security and Governance

Pakistan’s Daunting–and Deteriorating–Demographic Challenge

First published in The New Security Beat

Every day it seems the headlines bring new worries about the future of Pakistan. But among the many challenges confronting the nation–including a growing Taliban insurgency–one significant problem remains largely undiscussed: its rapidly expanding population.

Consider this: Pakistan’s population nearly quadrupled from 50 million in 1960 to 180 million today. It’s expected to add another 66 million people–nearly the entire population of Iran–in the next 15 years. UN projections predict that by the late 2030s, Pakistan will become the fourth most populous country in the world, behind India, China, and the United States.

And believe it or not, the demographic outlook for Pakistan got bleaker in recent weeks. The new medium-range UN projections for Pakistan’s total population have been raised to 335 million for 2050–45 million higher than the UN projection just two years ago. Why the change? Because birth rates aren’t falling as had been predicted–women in Pakistan have an average of four children–and unmet need for family planning remains high.

The case of education provides a snapshot of how these demographics affect Pakistan, from basic quality-of-life issues to the country’s overall stability. Even though the official literacy rate in Pakistan has increased from about 18 percent to 50 percent since 1970, the number of illiterate people has simultaneously jumped from 28 million to 48 million. The literacy rate for women stands at a shockingly low 35 percent.

As public schools have become increasingly overcrowded, more parents have turned to madrasas in an attempt to educate their children–or at least their sons. It’s no secret that some of Pakistan’s madrasas have ties to radical religious and terrorist-affiliated organizations.

So what does this portend for the future?

Even assuming large infusions of assistance from the United States, Pakistan’s public school system will become even more overwhelmed in the years ahead. Building enough schools and hiring enough teachers would be daunting in any country, let alone one facing as many challenges as Pakistan. It seems likely that enrollments in madrasas will swell, and more children will face a future with no schooling whatsoever. Clearly, this is not a recipe for a more stable and peaceful Pakistan.

Pakistan’s rapid population growth is not inevitable, however. A key driver is lack of access to family planning, which is symptomatic of the overall poor status of women and girls. More than 25 percent of Pakistani women have an unmet need for family planning–meaning the demand is clearly there–and nothing in the Koran prohibits its usage. In other majority-Muslim nations, such as Algeria, Bangladesh, and Iran, family planning has been prioritized and is widely used.

Unfortunately, family planning programs in Pakistan and many developing countries have suffered from both inattention and funding cuts in recent years. Traditionally, the United States has been a major source of funding and technical assistance, but since 1995, U.S. international family planning assistance has fallen 35 percent (adjusted for inflation), even as demand has increased.

Today, more than 200 million women–many of them in the most impoverished parts of the world–have an unmet need for family planning. In countries like Pakistan, the resulting rapid population growth makes it increasingly difficult to provide sufficient education, health care, housing, and employment–and depletes land, water, fisheries, and other vital natural resources.

The Obama administration recently proposed a new U.S. assistance strategy for Pakistan–and a key component is a significant increase in development and economic assistance. Let’s hope it will include an increase for family planning. It would be a wise investment in a brighter, more stable future–for Pakistan and for the world.

Tod Preston is vice president for U.S. government relations at Population Action International.

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