Mexican Men Get the Message About Limiting Family Size

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DAD sees the writing on the wall. His teenage son has become a local Casanova. Dad wants to prevent an unplanned pregnancy, but he's struggling.

"Look ... I don't know but ... you're old enough to think for yourself ... you're not going to do anything stupid ... why don't you visit the clinic or the health center? They can tell you more about this...."

"About what, dad?"

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"Well, about how to avoid being an irresponsible parent. Go there. They'll tell you. Besides, it's free."

The radio message ends with a voice-over: "Because a son deserves the best, the commitment is to two [children]."

In a society where male machismo may mean having two families, one by a wife and one by a mistress, any program to reduce the population-growth rate must include men, not just women.

"Machismo isn't a Mexican trait, it's in every country," notes Manuel Urbina Fuentes, head of the National Population Council in Mexico City. "Our top three priorities are reaching the rural population, adolescents, and men."

And no wonder. Over half of Mexican women using state-sponsored birth-control services say they do so without telling their husbands, because they fear physical abuse, according to the Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

The council is running a series of radio, television, and billboard ads to get the message out. Pamphlets are distributed at meetings of unions, sports organizations, and farm cooperatives.

"Mexico is conveying the message that it's less macho to have 15 children with one pair of shoes between them than three children, each with shoes, clothes, and schoolbooks," says a United Nations population expert.

In many other traditional societies, where women are subservient to their husbands, family-planning agencies are also recognizing that men must be won over if population efforts are to succeed.

A media campaign in Zimbabwe has prompted hundreds of men to begin talking to their wives about family planning. In Brazil, TV spots have led to a sharp increase in the demand for vasectomies. Laws in Nigeria and other developing nations now require paternal child support, a responsibility usually borne only by the mother.

"You can't get fertility decline unless both men and women have some disincentive to high fertility," says Judith Bruce, a senior associate at the Population Council, a private research group in New York. "Until men bear parallel costs, what incentive do they have to cut fertility?"

In Mexico, the appeal to men has been buttressed by decades of economic crisis, which has convinced men and women alike that more children mean less for everyone.

"Men are almost as readily convinced as women by education programs that show the economic and health advantages of having smaller families," says Earle Lawrence, a United States Agency for International Development specialist.

Awareness of AIDS is also making the work easier. Condoms are now available in grocery and department stores, not just pharmacies. That's one reason why fertility rates in Mexico have been cut in half during the past 20 years.

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