Iran's Focus on Increasing Population Could Damage Women's Rights

Earlier this week, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for a population increase, sharing a 14-point plan dedicated to combating the country's declining birth rate. Critics worry that this move could restrict access to contraception and harm women's rights.

According to Al-Monitor, Khamenei has long been concerned with his nation's declining population, which was largely caused by several far-reaching family-planning policies implemented in the late '80s. As a result of such policies — which made contraception widely available and provided men with the option to get free vasectomies — Iran's population growth has fallen drastically, from 3.2% in 1986 to 1.2%. This is something Khamenei hopes to reverse.

In the 14-point decree outlining his plan, Khamenei wrote, "Given the importance of population size in sovereign might and economic progress... firm, quick and efficient steps must be taken to offset the steep fall in birth rate of recent years." Thus, he emphasizes "increasing the fertility rate to above replacement levels"; "eliminating barriers to marriage" and "lowering the age of marriage and supporting young couples"; and "reforming and completing public education" to emphasize the importance of the family, among other measures. This is part of a much larger pattern: in the past two years, government support for birth control has been cut; in addition, according to the Christian Science Monitor, mandatory birth control education has been replaced by "'marriage and family' classes that emphasize having more babies."

According to a report in the Guardian, reformists fear this move away from family planning policies could "undermine the position of women in a country where 60% of university students are female but only 12.4% of the workforce is." Furthermore, de-emphasizing the importance of contraception could result in grave danger on the sexual health front: "If, based on some policies, the distribution of condoms in the country is faced with limitations, it will cause horrible events," Dr. Minoo Moharez, head of the AIDS Research Centre at Tehran, told Reuters. "The increase of AIDS patients from unprotected sex will be compounded."

According to Farzaneh Roudi of the Population Reference Bureau, a good solution to Iran's aging workforce isn't producing as many babies as feasibly possible: she notes that the government could just "tap the women labour force, many of whom do not work in the formal economy." That seems like a much more achievable measure, because, as she puts it, "It's hard for me to imagine that people will have more children because Khamenei wants them to."

Image via AP.