A Brief History Of Family Planning Policies In Iran

Iran’s population policies have had a tumultuous history. Its various governments have issued very differing statements and formulated varying policies that have affected women’s right to choose the size of their families since the twentieth century. A quick look at the history followed by an analysis of recent policies show that even the best of policies that made contraception available to women were formulated not for the benefit of women themselves, but for the sociopolitical benefit of the country. ASAP Youth Champion Nikzad Zangeneh analyses this complex history in this blog.

Official statistics show that the growth of population in Iran was less than 1% in the first quarter of the twentieth century. In the following years, the improvement of health care systems and living standards led to higher survival rates and a rapid increase in population. In the 1960s, the high rate of growth of population (2.7) was viewed as a threat by the then government, which established the Family Planning Council of Iran in 1967 and formulated the National Family Planning Programme to control the population growth. In the first year of the program 10,000 women received services, and this number dramatically increased to 621,000 (11% of married women aged from 15-45) in 1977. During the course of this programme, the fertility rate fell from 7.7 in 1966 to around 6.0 in 1976.

But in the next two decades Iran would witness changes in this policy. Soon after the 1979 revolution, the Family Planning Program was dismantled and the Family Planning Council dissolved. As a direct result, the fertility rose to 7.0 in 1980, and the rate of growth of population jumped to 3.6. Growing voices of concern forced the government to change its population policies once again in the late 1980s.  Ayatollah Khamene’i the leader and President discussed the value of the Family Planning Programme during the Friday Prayer services in 1988. In February of the same year, population policies were once more on the table, and the Secretary of Health announced the New National Family Planning Programme, referring to birth control as a “destiny factor”.

The National Family Planning Programme that launched in the December of 1989 had three main goals:

  1. Encourage birth spacing intervals of 3-4 years
  2. Discourage pregnancy among women younger than 18 and older than 35
  3. Limit family size to three children.

During this period, population policies and family planning were central to the Iranian discourse on development. The budget allocated to this programme steadily rose, reaching 17,142, 857 USD in 1993. In that year the program also received an extra budget of about 700,000 USD from the President, and The World Bank allocated a loan for the establishment of 623 rural health centers.  Private and public clinics offered family planning services. In the public sector, contraceptive devices were distributed freely. “Health houses” in rural area that integrated family planning and health care service were established. The programme worked successfully, and the already declining fertility rate fell from 8.6 births in 1984 to 2.8 in mid-1996. The trend continued and led to a total fertility rate of 2.2 in 2000. The census in 2012 revealed that the fertility rate is less than 2 births per woman.

Studies show that this programme has been one of the most successful family planning programmes in developing countries. The family planning programmes enabled families to choose the number of children they wanted to have, and space them conveniently. During this period, Iran also recorded the highest rate of contraception use among Muslim countries. Moreover, Iran successfully closed the gap between women living in rural and urban area in the use of modern contraception. A research in 2004 revealed that over 60% of Iranian women did not want to have over 2 children, underlining the significant role these policies played in empowering Iranian women.

Unfortunately the approach of the government toward family planning drastically changed has changed ever since. Prominent leaders have recently emphasized on the need for large families with over 5 to 6 children. The first call for a reversal of Iran’s existing two-child policy came in October 2006, when President Ahmadinejad called for an increase in Iran’s population from 70 to 120 million. Women should work less and devote more time to their “main mission” of raising children, he said. “I am against saying that two children are enough. Our country has a lot of capacity. … For many children to grow in it. … Westerners have got problems. Because their population growth is negative, they are worried and fear that if our population increases, we will triumph over them”.

Ahmadinejad’s call for a higher birth rate reminded some of the demand of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 for an increased population, which was eventually reversed in response to the resultant economic strain. Critics noted that Iran with surging inflation and an unemployment rate of 11% a population of 120 million would only lead to a shortage of fresh water, limiting “the country’s domestic agricultural and industrial development options.” Some critics also noted that some countries “triumph” over others because of superior “knowledge, technology, wealth, welfare, and security”, not merely the size of their population.

However, His opinions were reflected in the speeches of several other important leaders. On 25 July 2012, Supreme Leader Khamenei stated that Iran’s contraceptive policy made sense 20 years ago, “but its continuation in later years was wrong … Scientific and experts studies show that we will face population aging and reduction (in population) if the birth-control policy continues.” In another speech delivered on August 2, 2012, Minister of Health and Medical Education Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, said: “The budget for the population control program has been fully eliminated and such a project no longer exists in the health ministry. The policy of population control does not exist as it did previously.” Deputy health minister Ali Reza Mesdaghinia was quoted in the semiofficial Fars News Agency on 29 July, 2012 that population control programs “belonged to the past,” and that “there is no plan to keep number of the children at one or two. Families should decide about it by themselves. In our culture, having a large number of children has been a tradition. In the past families had five or six children. … The culture still exists in the rural areas. We should go back to our genuine culture.”

The calls for a large family have led once more to the dismantling of family planning policies, and threaten to impact women’s lives negatively. Women now have reduced access to contraceptives as the ministry of health and medical education has halted free family planning services to people, ordered all health centers in Iran to stop distribution of contraceptive pills and condoms, prevented midwives from performing IUD insertions, and gynecologists from performing tubal ligation surgeries. Since abortion laws are also very restrictive, the suspensions of free family planning programmes lead to unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion. This issue will be more serious in the remote villages and impassable regions.

Furthermore, information about family planning has been removed from health centers. Health care providers are obligated to encourage women to continue their pregnancy, and have large families. Population education has been removed from school curriculums and has been replaced by “psychology of marriage.”

New population policies will also have serious negative effects on the national economy and welfare of the people. More pregnancies may reduce the rate of women’s education and employment and increase gender gap in Iran. In the coming years, the growth in the population is also likely to intensification Iran’s socioeconomic issues like poverty, inequality and unemployment.

All evidence demands that the people of Iran should be able to avail of the facilities provided by the previously successful family planning programme.

These are only some of the more obvious reasons to reflect on and review Iranian population policy. Forcing women to continue their pregnancies, or to have multiple pregnancies against their own will is also a breach of human rights. All these arguments make a strong case for a revision of the population policies in Iran.

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About Nikzad Zangeneh

Nikzad Zangeneh is one of ASAP's youth champions in Iran. She works for sexual and reproductive health for young people.
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