If Islam Says 'Have Babies,' The UN Says 'Let's Talk'

It's not clear whether Zainab Said smiles with pride or sighs with exasperation when asked how many children she has.

"Twelve," she says from behind a black Islamic hejab that cloaks all of her body except her eyes.

Asked why she has such a large family, she seems baffled by the question and doesn't answer. But all over the developing world, many are asking the question, even in very traditional societies.

In Yemen, there seems no alternative. The population is likely to double in 20 years. Real gross domestic product is $1,600 per capita. Declining and malnutrition is rampant. Just 11 percent of the land is cultivable.

Given the continuing patterns of rapid reproduction amid poor living conditions, the average life expectancy here is 50 years, one of the lowest in the world.

The so-called population explosion heralds increasing third-world pauperization - as well as more economic refugees clamoring to reach the US and other industrial nations.

In Yemen, gains in health mean birth rates have soared even higher. And, as in so many other nations, the job-seekers moving to urban areas are pushing cities beyond their limits.

But countries like Yemen are trying new strategies to cope. The key to the latest tactics is a more comprehensive approach.

A UN-funded new pilot project here sends out roving units of field workers who meet with local women - many of whom aren't reached by the media - to educate them on several issues.

They give classes on health, small businesses start-ups, and literacy. When they've made good contacts, they talk family planning.

"To just go in and say stop having children is seen as the foreigner telling them what to do," says Jocelyn Talbot, a United Nations population expert in Sana, Yemen's capital.

"They have to see us doing positive things for them and then open the topic."

The national strategy also includes trying to raise the average marrying age to at least 18 - in some rural areas, girls marry as between the ages of 12 and 15 - and encouraging couples to space births by at least two years.

In Yemen, the government sees the need for population control, but it faces centuries-old beliefs that big families are a source of pride and protection.

Most Yemenis believe the number of children one has is God's will and that God provides for them. Young brides try to get pregnant fast to boost their social standing. Men encourage such fertility, seeing it as proof of their manliness.

If people had more money, says one UN field worker, "most of them say they would have another child. In fact, the birth rate in Yemen has increased because health improvements mean that while fewer children are dying at birth or in childhood, women are continuing to have children until they no longer can."

Also, most people mistrust birth control and view it as contrary to Islam, which they believe encourages many births.

Teaching views that differ from that perspective often leads to accusations of being un-Islamic.

A recent newspaper cartoon ridiculed the government's campaign - mild compared with other Arab states - showing a man pointing to his wife's pregnant belly and yelling, "Don't you know the government said you should stop having babies so we can decrease our national deficit?"

Many in Yemen's democratic government, which is ruled by a coalition of conservatives and Islamists, are trying to change people's desire for big families.

"Islam is in favor of a small family. Islam calls on you to think about your daily life according to the circumstances," says Abdoraboh Gradah, who heads Yemen's population agency.

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