Bangladesh has the third largest population in South Asia, after India and Pakistan. In July 2011, the results of Bangladesh’s fifth population census were released. The story behind the country’s latest demographic data foretells how a growing population could very well be a boon for the country if population control strategies are not ramped up.
The population now stands at 142.3 million people, nearly double the country’s 1974 statistic and 18 million more than 10 years ago. This level of growth is approximately equivalent to an annual population growth rate of 1.34% over the past decade. The population density has increased from 834 to 964 people per square kilometer. Nestled among these figures is the conspicuous fact that rural-to-urban migration has increased, thereby putting significant strain on urban facilities and resources. About one-third of Bangladeshis live in urban areas; at the current growth rate, it is projected that by 2040 the total population will balloon to 230 million people where 52% will live in urban areas.
For the most part, increased literacy, social awareness and urban influence have alleviated the potential negative effects (i.e., significant increase in unemployment or birth rates) of Bangladesh’s population growth over the past 10 years, but these trends must be maintained in tandem with population control and family planning programs. Institutes like the country’s Directorate General of Family Planning are very understaffed. Policy implementation and monitoring must be prioritized to ensure the success of the country’s population control programs.
The average household size in Bangladesh is 4.4 persons per family, down from 4.8 in 2001 and 5.5 in 1991. The average Bangladeshi woman now has 2.15 children compared to 5.1 children in 1981. Traditionally in the developing world, having large families is like an insurance policy against illness and poverty in old age. Clearly, a shift has occurred in the attitude towards family planning, but it is not enough to head off the potentially catastrophic effects of a rapidly increasing population against a markedly slower food production rate. The Government of Bangladesh drafted a population policy in 2009 seeking to introduce and promote the concept of a single-child family by 2015, but it has not taken assertive enough strides to achieve that goal.
As seen in the Urban Health Survey, there is a minute difference between urban fertility and birth rates in Bangladesh. The fertility rate in Bangladesh’s urban slums is 2.46% and 1.85% in non-slum areas, while the birth rate is 2.38% in urban slums and 1.79% in non-slum areas. These statistics highlight an important fact: 42% of married women in Bangladesh do not use contraception. In a city like Dhaka — where the population density is 18,055 people per square kilometer – more needs to be done. In another report, urban family planning activities by the government cover just 25% of the urban population.
There are further reports highlighting the inadequacy and, in some cases inactivity, of efforts to improve access to family planning services for urbanites, particularly the urban poor. Since 1998, it is claimed that the Health and Family Welfare Ministry has had no urban family planning activities. An unnamed report cited in The Daily Star, in Dhaka, more than 250 Dhaka City Corporation employees in the family welfare department have had no work for the last 13 years; strange then that they have still been paid regular wages in that period. In another case of inadequacy, the Urban Primary Health Care Project (UPHCP), an initiative meant to provide healthcare services to the urban poor, does not have door-to-door family planning services, making access to these services a real obstacle. In a series of surveys conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and other NGOs, it was discovered that middle-class families would prefer to have just two children, but do not have access to contraception.
The Government of Bangladesh has coined two popular family planning slogans: Two is good enough – boy or girl and One child is good, but no more than two. These campaigns are not enough. The government must expand its public awareness campaigns and improve provision of contraception and associated information. The key to population control is to improve the social status of women. In Bangladesh, women have limited legal and political rights and, in many cases, they also have an incomplete education. The population census does show a trend whereby the sex ratio is slowly closing: it has narrowed from 100.4 males to 100 females a decade ago to the current ratio of 100.3 males to 100 females. Empowering young women with education and job opportunities will help them to challenge more traditional perceptions against family planning and to have a say in how many children they will have. As Md. Asadullah Khan so eloquently states in his article: “The message should be: There is no such thing as population control. Alex [Marshal of the UNFPA] says, ‘You don’t control it. You allow people to make up their mind.’”
The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.