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    Middle East
     Dec 17, '13

Iran's silent fertility crisis
By Faezeh Samanian

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The low fertility rate among Iran's 75 million people has produced a dramatic change in the make-up of the population, with the so-called "graying society" increasingly apparent, according to a new UN report. [1] The birthrate "has declined from 2.2 births per woman in 2000 to 1.6 in 2012". [2] This has change the median age of Iranians to 27.1 years in 2010, up from 20.8 years in 2000. It will reach 40 years by 2030. [3]

Although the overall fertility rate (TFR) has dropped rapidly below the international replacement level, on the other hand great national variations can be seen within Iran's cities. Tehran and

Isfahan have the lowest fertility rates and Khuzestan has the highest rate. [4]

What has really happened?
Iran's success with the Family Planning Program (FPPI) and its appropriate strategies led to a very fast decrease in population growth and fertility indices. [5] This achieved a decrease in the average number of births per woman in the early 1980s from 6.08 to 1.8 births per woman in 2007 and was identified as a revolution in Iran's health promotion. [6]

The Family Planning Program was officially launched in 1966 to address three major points: to encourage women to have a gap between births; to avoid births in women younger than 18 and older than 35; and to limit the number of children per family to a maximum of three. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and following the start of the Iran/Iraq war, the program lost its priority.

The TFR, which was around 6.0 in 1976, rose and reached a post-revolution peak 6.3 in 1986. [7] This tiny increase occurred as a result of the prevailing social environment created by the Iran/Iraq war in which families were encouraged to have more children and economic incentives were provided to support this. Despite all of this, the period of the high fertility rates "was short lived, and fertility started to decline by the mid-1980s", reaching around 5.5 in 1988. [8] The TFR fell sharply after 1989, dropping from 5.5 to below 2.8 in 1996 and continued on down to 1.6 in 2012.

According to new research published in the Etemaad newspaper, those couples who have just married and those who have been married for up to three years show no inclination to have any children at all, or perhaps just one. [9] This tendency over the past decade illustrates that for women of urban and rural backgrounds, from different social classes, the poor and the rich, illiterate and literate, all have a similar attitude to giving birth these days, leading to the rapid downward trend in the Iranian TFR.

Despite the successful role of the family planning program in the fertility transition, not all the credit of fertility decline should be given to the government and its family planning programs; other factors include the increased availability of higher education, the establishment of the health network system in remote areas, familiarity with Western lifestyles as a result of Internet access and satellite for the majority in rural and urban areas, and, especially, economic hardship: all of the above are likely to have had an indirect effect on fertility decline.

Some have argued that the major factor is as a result of the public education opportunities, especially among women. Today, Iranian girls between the ages of 15 and 24 enjoy near universal literacy. As education and opportunities increased for women, fertility rates went down. Aware of their own rights, women are not following traditional norms to have more than one child. They prefer to increase their roles in society instead of having children.

Girls and younger ladies are staying in education longer, delaying marriage, and this will affect their fertility decision-making. Shadi-Talab in her study Iranian Women: Rising Expectations stated:
Iranian women are moving towards convergence in basic gender sensitive values. The main part of these reforms is the result of girls' empowerment through higher education from different socio-economic backgrounds. Therefore, Iranian women with rising expectations are an accelerating force of development in Iran. [10] .
Despite the fact that the large gap between TFRs in the rural and urban areas has narrowed substantially in the 2000s [11] and that it is decreasing not only in rural area but also in the cities, and for women of all ages, it seems that economic pressure also is a major factor in the postponement of marriage and the increase in the age at first marriage.

It is notable that Iran these days has been experiencing economic hardship particularly after the increases in the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community. The cost of living has risen dramatically in recent years. The young generation tends to delay their marriage until they get a salaried job to be able to afford the high living costs. "The increasing cost of rearing children, particularly the cost of education, is another important factor in family decision-making". [12]

Ali Haj Ghasemi, Iranian journalist for the Meli-Majhabi magazine, argues that the policy approach of the "Subsidy Cut Program" which has been planned to cover the low-level classes of society - especially the urban and uneducated levels - doesn't have any specially attractive subsidies for the middle class and therefore has an additional indirect effect on the fertility decline. [13] He states that the Subsidy Cut Program is undermining the economic efficiency of the middle class, which is having a totally negative effect on population growth policies. This major section of society is now paying more attention to, and being greatly influenced by, the increasing cost of rearing children, particularly the cost of education.

What will happen?
Nicolas Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah categorized some implications of these demographic changes for the years ahead. [14] In that categorization, Iran stands top among Muslim countries in fertility decline. In 2030, Iran will have the lowest percentage of population aged 15-24 in the Muslim world unless the government can stop and indeed reverse stop this flow.

Some criticism could be leveled against women who postpone marriage and who could therefore be blamed for not respecting the traditional norms in their early years. But before criticizing the younger generation for an apparent lack of respect, we should see what Iran's government has done up now to encourage population growth.

Former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad appealed to Iranian legislators to take steps to boost the country's population from 70 to 120 million and condemned the country's recent attainment of the two-child family. Around two years ago he launched a new policy to encourage population growth. Under this program, each newborn baby received the equivalent of a US$950 deposit in a government bank account. That amount increases by $95 each year until the child reaches 18. The young girl or boy at the age 20 "can access the funds to pay for education, marriage, health and housing". [15] But the data show that the influence of economic hardship and the power of educated women were more powerful than the president's offer, since the changes in fertility rate are still negative and there is not any positive sign.

According to the Euromonitorial International report, in 2030, the population of Iran will be 89.9 million, an increase of 19.8% from 2010. [16] At the same time, the population aged 40 and above will expand by 108%. If the Iranian government cannot propose a good working solution, in the not-so-distant future one person will need to work to feed seven.

Despite the fact that the new administration's plans are covering some aspects of the young generation and particularly an increasing role for women, there is not any special plan for economic growth. It seems that Iran is sticking to the slogan of the Family Planning Program, namely; "Fewer children, Better life." [17]

1. The United Nations, 2013, 2013 Human Development Report, UNDP.
2. U.N. Stats: Iran's Slow Population Growth, United States Institute of Peace, The Iran Primer, April 1, 2013.
4. Nicholas Eberstadt 2013, on Fertility Decline in the Muslim World: A Veritable Sea-Change, Still Curiously Unnoticed.
5. Masoumeh Simbar, 2010, "Achievements of the family planning program in Iran", Scientific Journal of School of Public Health and Institute of Public Health Research, 8,1.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi & Peter McDonald, 2005, National and provincial-level fertility Trends in Iran, 1972-2000, Australian National University, Journal of Social Science, Working Papers in Demography, 94, PP.11.
9. Tabnak, 2013, Fertility crisis for Iranian, Tabnak Professional news site.
10. J Shadi-Talab, 2001, Iranian women: Rising expectations. Paper presented at MESA, 27-28, Florida.
11. Mohammad Javad Abbasi, 2000, Convergence of fertility behaviors in Iran: Provincial fertility levels, patterns and trends: 1972-2000, Journal of Social Sciences, translated by the author.
12. Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi & Peter McDonald, 2005, National and provincial-level fertility Trends in Iran, 1972-2000, Australian National University, Journal of Social Science, Working Papers in Demography, 94, pp 11.
13. Ali Hajghasemi, 2012, Population growth crisis in Iran, the problem will not be solved with advice!, Meli-Mazhabi Magazine, translated by the author.
14. Nicholas Eberstadt, 2013, on Fertility Decline in the Muslim World: A Veritable Sea-Change, Still Curiously, Unnoticed.
15. Palash Gosh, 2013, Be Fruitful and Multiply: Iran's Program To Increase Its Population Might Not Work, International Business Times, April 22, 2013.
16. Future demographic, Iran in 2030: The Future Demographic, 2013.
17. Negar Ghobadi, 2010, Essays on Fertility, Gender Preference and Family Planning in Iran, UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 10.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Faezeh Samanian is a Graduate Student at the Korea Development Institute's (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management in Seoul, South Korea. She specializes in Political Economy and International Relations.

(Copyright 2013 Faezeh Samanian)

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