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Population Policy Under Scrutiny

Damascus government accused of failing to encourage contraception to deal with soaring birth rate.
The Syrian authorities have been criticised for lacking an effective birth control strategy, despite warnings from officials and experts of the risks to society and the economy of soaring population growth.

High birth rates are threatening to deplete the country’s resources and are hampering the process of development, officials and experts say.

The alarm was raised by the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, an official body responsible for setting family and population-related policies, which said the population is expected to increase from around 22 million today to an estimated 30 million in 15 years’ time.

The head of the commission, Dr Ensaf Hamad, called on the government during a January conference to implement policies that directly address population growth issues.

Policies have yet to match the seriousness of the situation, critics say, even if the need to curb population growth has been recognised by the authorities in recent years.

They started distributing the contraceptive pill a decade ago and in 2001, a new law stipulated that women could have maternity leave and financial support only for their first three pregnancies.

Even that is a remarkable change after decades in which the government encouraged large families. Until the late 1980s, families with more than 12 children received medals as a symbol of national appreciation.

The 2009 Arab Human Development Report issued by the United Nations warned that Syria could face a population explosion. With an annual rate of growth reaching 2.5 per cent, the country had one of the fastest growing populations in the Arab region and the world.

Experts say this trend has created high density of population in the big cities, exacerbating poverty, pollution and the spread of slums. Another important effect is the rise in unemployment as the elevated birth rates generate a larger young population.

Official figures issued in 2007 showed that 40 per cent of the population were under 15.

Efforts to raise awareness of birth control have failed because they have not targeted the right sections of society, said Yahia al-Aws, editor-in-chief of Thara, an electronic publication that deals with women’s and children’s rights.

“Government programmes … suffer from many serious weaknesses,” he said.

He said official action has not been targeted towards the underdeveloped and rural areas in the north of the country where it is most needed to limit high birth rates.

The programmes have usually consisted of lectures and conferences delivering general information on birth control. The health ministry has also been distributing contraceptives to women who cannot afford to buy them.

Aws said that officials address women when it comes to pregnancy-related issues and overlook the importance of influencing men.

“These programmes have failed to reach husbands … who are the ones who make decisions regarding the number of children in most Syrian households,” he said.

A study carried out by the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs in 2006 showed that most women who use contraception hold university degrees and live in cities. Even the majority of educated women only resort to contraception after having four children, it said.

A 2008 World Health Organisation report showed the rate of contraceptive use was about 58 per cent based on the percentage of women aged between 15 and 49 who are practicing, or whose sexual partners are practicing, any form of contraception.

The report said that this figure is only 1.6 per cent when the contraceptive method is condoms.

Another obstacle, Aws, is that the government has been “monopolising” family planning issues.

He suggested that civil society should be allowed to create specialised groups that can reach a wider spectrum of Syrian society to raise awareness of birth control more effectively.

Civil society groups say measures taken so far are insufficient and call for new laws to bring in a more forceful family planning strategy.

One obstacle is that the Syrian penal code makes it a criminal offence to sell contraceptives and advertise them, with punishment of up to 12 months in jail, although the law is not enforced today.

The law dates from 1953 when it was believed that controlling birth rates was against the beliefs of Islam and the government appears unwilling to risk confrontation with religious leaders.

“It is a big mistake to continue having laws [against contraception] while at the same time putting into effect official programmes that call for the use of contraceptive methods,” a Damascus-based legal expert said on condition of anonymity.

"Most religious men are against the use of birth control methods, because they think this is against Islamic laws and an interference with God’s will," he said.

At a recent conference, Ahmad Bader al-Din Hassoun, the Syrian mufti, the most senior Islamic figure in the country, said that Islam allows for “organising” and not “predetermining” birth, keeping the boundaries of birth control vague.

As well as religious beliefs, social values also limit the use of contraception in Syria, said a social expert who teaches at a Damascus university.

"Many women would not use any of those methods because they are afraid of God, or afraid of their husbands or simply because they see their roles only as mothers,” he said, asking to remain anonymous.

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