Iran's Family Program is Succeding

From Popline, the Population Institute's news service - June, 1998

Two decades ago, after the Islamic Revolution, Iran's leaders encouraged Iranians to have as many children as possible to breed an Islamic generation. The result was population growth from 34 million in 1979 to 63 million today.

In the early 1980s Iran registered annual population growth of around 3.2 percent, according to its national health ministry, although many international agencies estimated the figure at 3.9 percent. This rate represented phenomenal population growth and was aided by changes in the law such as allowing girls to be married as young as nine years of age.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s the Iranian government realized that the costs of this burgeoning population were going to far exceed its capacity to provide adequate food, education, housing and employment. Consequently, it embarked on an ambitious program of family planning to counter the mistakes of past government policy.

The result has been an amazingly successful family planning program that has won worldwide praise for its ingenuity. One method now practiced regularly in Iran is the "no-scalpel vasectomy," which can be performed in 10 minutes. The procedure is preceded by a 30-minute video and a personal counseling session.

Vasectomies are free and available at permanent and mobile facilities nationwide. The increased use of vasectomy in Iran also indicates willingness on the part of men there to take responsibility for implications of sex, both on a personal and societal level.

After the procedure, many Iranian men have stated that they prefer vasectomies to withdrawal as a method of family planning and feel that the procedure has improved their relationships with their wives. Surgeons agree and explain that vasectomies liberate sex life and a wife's love for her husband because he had the procedure out of concern for her health.

These efforts are supported throughout the country by all levels of society. Even Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khomenei has said, "When wisdom dictates that you do not need more children, a vasectomy is permissible."

Iran's family planning program is comprehensive, offering Norplant, condoms, IUDs, the pill and sterilization, all at no cost. The program often regarded as Tehran's "other revolution" coincided with the end of the war with Iraq in 1988 and a new pragmatism on the part of the country's governing Muslim clergy. At that time, religious leaders, health experts and academics held a summit to determine the best way to limit population growth and realized providing birth control alone was not enough.

The result was that in 1990 the Fertility Regulation Council was founded, and by 1993 new laws were enacted which withdrew food coupons and subsidized health insurance after a couple's 'third child.

In 1994 prenuptial classes began educating couples on techniques and benefits of family planning. Initially, the classes were mandatory for any couple wanting to get married, but after two years, administrators found out that most couples wanted to have the two-hour course before getting married.

A vital component of the course and the entire family planning program in Iran is gender equality. The country is seeking to avoid the pitfalls of other Asian countries where gender preference is magnified when the number of children a couple has is limited. Another feature of the program is preventing pregnancy for women below the age of 20. The government is also considering raising the legal age of marriage for girls from nine to 15 to reduce pregnancies among women under the age of 20.

Other programs Iran has supported include workshops in factory health rooms to try and get the message through to blue-collar workers. The government also strongly promotes Population Week, which coincides with the United Nations designated Population Day on July 11. Finally, the government has a large and continually growing network of female volunteers who act as neighborhood advisors teaching people about family planning. The 35,000 volunteers are located mostly in urban areas and the government employs 80 mobile units to spread the message in the countryside.

The government in association with religious leaders and society as a whole has identified population growth as one of the greatest dangers to Iran's future prosperity. The country's family planning programs have been very popular and successful, but the relative youth of the country's population means that its human numbers are still expected to grow to nearly 100 million within 30 years, a threefold increase in only 50 years.