Egypt Is Having a Baby Boom — and Wants to Stop It
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Egypt is struggling to meet the demands on its resources by a growing population.
By Heba Saleh
Sameh Suleiman already had three children between 8 and 12 when his wife decided last year that she wanted another baby.
“I agreed because we had only one boy and two girls, so we wanted another boy,” says Suleiman, a Cairo newspaper seller who makes around $200 in a good month. “We now have a new baby boy, and it is just our luck that he came at a moment of very high prices.”
Egyptians prefer large families, but they come with significant economic costs for both parents and the country. In an effort to rein in the galloping birth rate, the Egyptian government has launched a family planning program named “Two Are Enough.”
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has described population growth along with terrorism as the biggest threats facing Egypt, whose population hit 98 million in December.
The authorities want to convince millions of people like Suleiman and his wife that if they have fewer children they would be able to offer them a better life as well as ease the burden on the state, which is struggling to meet the rising demand for jobs and services.
“A child is born every 15 seconds and we add 2.5 million babies every year,” says Amr Othman, assistant minister of Social Solidarity. “Think of what this means in terms of additional school places, hospital beds, vaccinations and all the other rights of children.” Othman says Egypt’s population is forecast to rise by another 20 million over the next decade.
The family planning program involves poster campaigns, television advertising, home visits by social workers and clinics handing out contraceptives. The government has also decided to stop disbursing some benefits to poor families beyond the second child. The aim, says Othman, is to reduce the fertility rate from 3.5 children per woman to 2.4 by 2030. Meeting that target would mean 8 million fewer births over the next decade.
Despite economic growth that reached 5.5 percent in 2018, Egypt has failed to generate the more than 800,000 jobs needed every year just to absorb new entrants to the labor market. Macroeconomic indicators have improved and the country has been praised by the International Monetary Fund for reforms.
Officials say population growth accelerated faster after the 2011 revolution when government was in disarray and Islamists became a more assertive political force for a while.
But most Egyptians struggle to survive on small incomes as the government cuts subsidies and prices soar. Unemployment stands at 10 percent and it is more than double that for the young. Faltering services, such as health and education, need massive investments just to cope with current demand, let alone the pressures of a rapidly expanding population, analysts say.
Egypt has already run a successful family planning program, which helped reduce the birth rate to 3.1 children per woman in 2008 from 5.6 in 1976. But when the program, funded by the U.S., expired in 2008, the birth rate started climbing again. Officials say population growth accelerated faster after the 2011 revolution when the government was in disarray and Islamists became a more assertive political force for a while.
The U.S. government, along with other international donors, is again supporting the new program with about $20 million. Nahla Abdel-Tawab, director of the Egypt office of the Population Council, an international research organization, says it is important to ensure “sustainability” of the program so that fertility rates do not rise again as soon as funding dries up. That, she argues, could be achieved through integrating family planning information in secondary schools because some girls marry immediately after they finish school.
But in a conservative country, the government has been wary about teaching sex education. “This is not sex education,” Abdel-Tawab says. “Schools have to talk about family planning, the benefits of a small family and the health risks of closely spaced pregnancies and early childbearing. Pupils should be told that there are contraceptive methods they can use when they get married. More than 60 percent of adolescent boys and girls do not know about birth control methods.” She also argues that expanding female employment is crucial to reducing the birth rate, as is teaching gender equality so that families with daughters do not keep trying for a son.
A big family with many sons is a source of pride and in some rural areas children provide extra hands on farms, researchers say. Arguing that parents should have fewer children so that they can be better educated is often undermined by the fact that university graduates struggle to find jobs while the informal economy has absorbed many unskilled workers.
For Suleiman, government efforts, including the curtailment of benefits after the second child, are not convincing. He remains sanguine about his family’s prospects.
“By all means everything is expensive and what the government gives us is very little,” he says. “They can increase the pressure on me, but income is something that God provides.”
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