For Egyptians, ‘Two children are enough’ amid overpopulation fears

Egypt’s population problem is exacerbated by a lack of natural resources and habitable space.
Sunday 10/06/2018
An elevated view of al-Attaba district on the edge of downtown Cairo. (AFP)
Overcrowded capital. An elevated view of al-Attaba district on the edge of downtown Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egypt has begun a family planning campaign to reduce a skyrocketing birth rate and control rampant population growth. Called “Two children are enough,” the campaign is to initially be implemented in the ten southern provinces that have the highest population growth and poverty rates.

Changing local cultures that emphasise the importance of large families will be at the heart of the new campaign, said the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which is implementing it. “There will be a series of activities aiming at spreading awareness about the benefits of having small families,” said Amr Osman, the assistant to the social solidarity minister. “They will mainly focus on links between population growth and poverty.”

The campaign is the latest bid by Egypt to control runaway population growth of more than 2% annually. Egypt’s population — estimated at more than 97 million in 2017 — is predicted to more than double within 50 years. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi once described the baby boom as the most serious threat facing the country other than terrorism.

Egypt’s population problem is exacerbated by a lack of natural resources and habitable space. Although Egypt is 1 million in size, Egyptians live on just 7% of the country, mainly along the Nile and the Nile Delta.

In the southern provinces, where the first phase of the campaign is being implemented, the population is growing at 2.6% per year. Small families are rare in the provinces, with some of the parents having more than ten children. Polygamy is rife in southern Egypt and traditional culture values the birth of boys over girls.

This is a long-entrenched culture the family planning campaign will try to change. To convince parents to limit family size to two children, the campaign will show direct links between large families and poverty.

“Parents need to understand that they will lead better lives if they distribute their income to a smaller number of children,” Osman said.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail in May said subsidies take up one-third of the Egyptian budget and that the same amount of subsidies could have made the lives of Egyptians better had they been distributed to a smaller number of people.

To bring the number of births down, the Health Ministry is making birth control and family planning tools and medication available at thousands of clinics. The ministry is sending medical specialists to the provinces to explain the need for married women to use birth control, said Soaad Abdel Meguid, the head of the Family Planning Section at the Health Ministry.

“We will also send dozens of mobile health clinics to remote areas in these provinces and villages deprived of health services,” Abdel Meguid said. “Specialists in these clinics will offer tailored family planning services to women, all for free.”

The need to control population growth dominates discussions in many places in Egypt. There was a proposal in parliament recently to deprive parents with more than two children of subsidies and free education. However, the measure did not win approval in parliament.

The population explosion is stoked by religious figures who view family planning campaigns negatively. Egypt has tried to involve the religious establishment.

Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Wali said the government would not punish parents who have more than two children, either by depriving them of benefits or by levying fines against them. The aim of the campaign is to introduce a grass-roots change in the culture, not force a change through a top-down policy decision.

However, experts said, owing to the overpopulation problems facing Egypt, the government should do more to encourage compliance.

“Our country’s resources are very limited and the population growth keeps dwarfing these resources,” said Said Sadek, a political sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. “There is a need for reining in the growth or all the efforts made now to push the economy forward will not be felt by anybody.”