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Al-Ahram Weekly - January 4, 2010

Family planning and birth control have long been at the top of the state's agenda. New state minister of population and family, Mushira Khattab, speaks to Reem Leila about the chronic over population problem

How difficult is your mission as state minister of population and family and what are your expectations for the population problem over the coming 10 years?

Our mission is very challenging, but it is not impossible. Most of our work deals with sets of practices or value systems that are not conducive to human development. Such practices include adults using children as a source of income at a very young age, leaving children to work instead of adults. This situation encourages the abuse and exploitation of children. It also encourages bending the law, as well as demoralising young souls. It results in national human and other resources going to waste when schools are built and certain families opt not to use them. Some families are forcing their daughters to stay at home without education, depriving them of any choices in life, or leaving them with only one choice, which is to find a man who will provide for them. The difficulty in dealing with such practices is that they are still accepted by certain groups in society under the guise of protecting girls and women. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is still practised, allegedly to protect the chastity of girls, as is marriage at a very young age. Child labour is also promoted as a way of fighting poverty, or of making children falsely proud of having grown up and being at work, or of maintaining certain craft skills. By 2020 Egypt's population will reach over 100 million. Five years later, according to UN estimations, this figure will jumb to 104.97 million.

What are your plans to tackle such problems?

Our aim is to empower the family to assume its responsibilities. The family is the most important social institution in any society. To date, no other institution has been able to compete with this role. Our vision recognises the crucial role played by the family in defining the characteristics of the population, and our mandate is to recognise this role and to empower the Egyptian family, with special attention given to the marginalised. This will take place through a set of interventions that are supportive of human rights and that will improve the quality of life of the population and ensure the best return on investment. They are part of a comprehensive plan for economic development in Egypt. We have successful models for such development that we will build on, such as working with local communities in marginalised areas and understanding their ways of thinking. This means respecting where they come from and empowering them to be the leaders of change. This is how we managed to break the taboo surrounding FGM, and it is how we convinced certain communities that had denied girls the right to education to change their ways. We were able to help them to see that a girl's education is an asset for her entire family and not only for the girl herself. Let me also say that all these issues are related, and the vision behind establishing the ministry with its current mandate reveals the president's realisation that certain issues, including overpopulation and the deterioration in the quality of life of individuals, are related. There are synergies that can benefit one set of issues while dealing with another. The relationships between depriving girls of education and the quality of life of the population as a whole, or between child labour and the population explosion, are only two examples. I very much hope that the new ministry will be strong enough to meet the challenges it is expected to address.

Estimates suggest that Egypt's population will have reached 105 million by 2020. How ready are we to face this prospect? How can population growth be slowed?

A national plan of action was prepared in 2007, and the Second National Population Conference later declared that the target should be to reach a population growth rate of 2.1 per cent by 2017. Unfortunately, it seems that this will not be possible before 2035, if not 2040. The president has declared that the rate of increase in the population has reached alarming levels that threaten to swallow up all our economic gains, and we are under every sort of pressure to expedite our efforts. A short-term objective is to improve family planning services. Improving medical counselling is another concern. Advocacy efforts are a pressing need, in order to help people to realise the threats posed by the current rate of population growth. This is the rationale behind establishing the new ministry. Over the long run, our efforts to control population growth are guided by a determination to improve the quality of life of the most marginalised families. By making sure that every child gets a birth certificate, goes to school, and receives free, high-quality education that will make him or her competitive in today's world, we will be able to reposition the decision-making process within the family. In most cases, a bigger family in the lower socio-economic groups is linked to perceptions of children as being valuable in economic terms and in alleviating family poverty. We see this attitude as exploitative of children, and our target is to correct it by helping families to perceive children as dependants entitled to care and protection till they reach the age of 18. Improving the socio-economic situation of families by providing quality social services such as education, healthcare and social protection will hopefully also lead them to opt for fewer children. Just as important is improving family planning services, along with strong advocacy and the capacity-building of professionals working in the field. This should help achieve our goal to meet the challenges represented by the population situation. Our advocacy and awareness-raising efforts aim primarily to make facts available to families. Along with these, we are working on improving the quality of medical counselling available, including through providing female doctors in certain areas. Providing contraceptives free of charge to the poor will also pay off, and the prime minister has agreed to this. Providing sound information to families will allow them to reconsider their decision to have children. Ensuring the adequate geographical distribution of the population is another target, and we see overcrowding in poorer areas as a moral problem and not just as an economic problem.

Which government ministries and other authorities are helping you in your work?

The issues we deal with touch on the mandates of many ministries, such as those of education, health, information, the interior, religious affairs, industry, investment, social solidarity, and so on. Such ministries are helped by us as much as they help us in our work. You could say that they are working on the hardware, while we are working on the software. Our main task is to improve the quality of individual lives through empowerment and self-reliance using a human-rights approach. We strive to represent the voice of the marginalised and deprived in government. We are not seeking to provide charity for such groups. Instead, we are fighting for their rights. These people are citizens, and they are entitled to equal rights. While other ministries work on the supply side, we work on the demand side, our task being to ensure equal access to quality services.

There is resistance to the idea of birth control in Egypt, especially in rural areas and in Upper Egypt, and this resistance is often connected to religious beliefs. How can you overcome this?

We are working under very difficult circumstances, with certain forces encouraging people to have more children. These resonate with poorer segments of society, and to make matters worse economic hardship pushes people to use children as a way of alleviating poverty. From this comes violence and the abuse of children. This leads to suffering all round, and the biggest toll is paid by women and the children themselves. We hear voices today calling for women to stay at home. However, educated women with various roles in society tend to have smaller families, and they are able to give their children better care.

How will you combat the idea that having a lot of children is necessary as a way of supporting a family?

This is another tough issue, and religion is being used by some to justify this situation. The role of enlightened religious leaders is vital in this respect. We need to interpret religion properly, since religion places a very high value on children and calls upon parents to provide them with the best of everything. However, in order to provide the best for one's children, one must plan well. It is essential to demonstrate that bigger families often compromise on the quality of living of their members. They also take a toll on the quality of the health, education and other social services that are available. It is very important to empower women, to hear their voices and to ensure that they make decisions for themselves. Women should not be forced into unwanted relationships, or made to follow a course of life that includes a too early marriage or a lack of education.

China, Iran and India have used both incentives and penalties in tackling the problem of birth control. How far can we use such methods in Egypt?

These countries are success stories, and religion was not used as an excuse in them or as a pretext for not acting. We need to learn from them. It hurts to see the current brain drain from developing countries, where educated young people leave their countries of origin and immigrate to more developed countries. This is a situation in which poorer countries are subsidising richer ones by paying for the education of their manpower. Unfortunately, the social climate in Egypt nowadays does not help in this respect. People are under economic pressure, and they are not ready for further restrictions. Cultural specificity is used as an excuse. To my mind, we must engage in a national dialogue over the issue of incentives. We need to arrive at a national consensus on these issues. We must also not be complacent about the present situation. Population growth is putting pressure on subsidies, and in my view these will need to be restructured to ensure greater fairness. It is difficult to perceive a situation in which national resources will be enough to cater for an indefinite number of citizens. Parents who plan wisely for their life should be rewarded, and everyone should bear the consequences of his or her decisions. Those who opt for a large number of children should bear the consequences of their decision. On the other hand, people need role models. They need success stories to identify with. We need to work harder to show that smaller families are happier and better off. We need to show that even if a family is well off and has means it will suffer because national and global resources are becoming inadequate to meet the needs of all. To this should be added the problem of global warming and the very tight situation of developing countries, which are being denied the right to follow the same path as developed countries.

Can we turn our human resources, sometimes described as a time bomb that could explode at any time, into something that positively benefits us?

It is our duty to benefit from our human resources. I would like to reposition your question, or to look at it from another angle. Every individual has the right to life and development. It is my wish that every citizen would insist on his or her right to education, healthcare and social protection. This would be a situation in which every parent would fight for his or her child's right to go to school and to remain in school, and for his or her child to receive the healthcare he or she is entitled to. Unfortunately, what we see today is that some families are opting not to send their children to school, but rather are using their children as bread winners. It is exactly for this reason that very poor families have more children than well-to-do ones. This is why we need to work hard to change the mindset of some families and to encourage them to access the services that have been designed for them rather than walk away from them. Of course, to attain this goal we must ensure that these services are of the highest possible quality and that they reach the poorest and most deprived in society. We need to put in a much stronger effort in order to bring such people into the mainstream, and this is a huge challenge.

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