Bangladeshi clerics back family planners

An unlikely partnership emerges in the world's ninth most populous country

Family planner Tayyaba Khatoon gathers women around her in Ratua Khali, a shantytown on the outskirts of Dhaka, explaining the need for smaller families and the mechanics of birth control.

The women look at a cleric for confirmation of Ms. Khatoon's advice. He nods, bestowing religious permission, a crucial endorsement in this conservative Muslim country bordering India and Burma.

Since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, the population of Bangladesh has almost doubled to 140 million people, making it the world's ninth most populous country.

But a quiet revolution is under way as an unlikely combination of feminist population planners and the country's orthodox clergy team up to combat Bangladesh's burgeoning population.

"We have involved religious leaders in the population control program and it has shown its positive results in the last few years, but we need to bring the birth rate down further," says Bangladesh Foreign Minister Murshid Khan.

Family planners say Bangladesh's population growth rate stands at a remarkable 1.8 percent. In 1980, the rate was 4.2. The fertility rate today is 3.3 children per woman, as opposed to 6.3 in 1980.

Getting religious leaders on board was crucial to curbing the birthrate.

'Act of Satan'

During the early 1990s, influential clerics across the country decreed that family planning was an "act of Satan," and those who practiced it would "go to hell." Family planners were physically assaulted and their offices attacked. Men and women using contraception would be treated as social outcasts.

"A local cleric refused to offer funeral prayers when a village woman who had opted for sterilization died," says Shahid Hossain, deputy director of the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh (FPAB).

"The cleric was standing on the street and calling the woman a sinner. So we had to offer the funeral prayers and delivered emotional speeches telling villagers that Islam is not against family planning," he recalls.

"We realized that we needed the support of mullahs if we wanted to combat the monster of population growth haunting Bangladesh," Mr. Hossain says.

An educational program was devised by the PFAB to look at the role of family planning in Islam, with a target audience of religious leaders, students, and opinion leaders.

Since the launch of the program, over 35,000 local religious leaders have attended seminars and 7,000 clerics have been trained. Many of them have now become a permanent feature in family planners visits to the slums and villages of Bangladesh.

Maulana Mohammad Rafique, a cleric in Dhaka, was initially firmly opposed to family planning. Now, whenever he is not in his mosque, he and his wife, Asma Begum, can be found walking from home to home, stopping to talk to families about family planning and healthy lifestyles.

"It is the decision of the couple when and how many children they should have," he says. "Islam does not shy away from sensitive issues like family planning."

Reversing the trend

Not all clerics see things Mr. Rafique's way, however. And family planners fear that a rise in militant Islam after Sept. 11 may reverse the trend. Across Bangladesh, cycle rickshaw drivers decorate their vehicles with posters of Osama bin Laden.

"There are instances where extremists are trying to impose moral sanctions on women."And that, Hossain suggests, does not help his efforts in population control.

But the program has withstood the 2001 election of a right-wing government that includes the main religious party in its coalition.

Sociologists also warn that the population-control program needs to go further, or the already overcrowded country will suffer a strain on its limited resources and land.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare says the population is expected to grow to about 210 million by the year 2020, presenting a bleak scenario for this poverty-stricken country where half of the people live below the poverty line, and malnutrition levels are high.

"About 45 percent of the population is under the age of 15. As these people enter the age of fertility, there is going to be another population explosion here," says Hossain .

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