Egypt waging war on overpopulation

September 04, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

ASBET KHALIL, Egypt -- This tiny, rural village beats slow with the rhythm of summer: Women shuck piles of corn, their daughters slosh clothes in a basin drawn from the river, cows nose inquiringly into the open windows of clay-brick homes.

And everywhere there are children.

Too many children, according to the government. Egypt has concluded it will never solve its problems -- poverty, illiteracy, underdevelopment -- unless it radically slows the growth of its people.

People such as Fatma Sayed Hassan. She's borne 15 babies. Every year, she would go to the terraced roof of her home to give birth -- "Laid them out like cats," she said. Two-thirds of them lived.

She stopped, says Fatma, 47, when "God gave me the best form of family planning: My husband died."

Egypt is pushing less drastic measures of birth control. Its successes, and shortfalls, reflect the mixed measures of the global population problem that will be heard at the International Conference on Population and Development starting tomorrow in Cairo.

On one hand, Egypt is making great strides in its population war. More than 48 percent of couples of child-bearing age now use contraceptives, double the rate of a decade ago. The average numbers of children per couple has dropped to 2.9 from 4.4 in 1985. Studies show the government's message -- that smaller families are better -- is universally heard and widely accepted.

"We are seeing success," says the Egyptian minister of population, Maher Mahran. "Today the population of Egypt is 59 million. If it weren't for our efforts, it would be 70 million."

On the other hand, Egypt's population is still swelling. It grows by a million every eight months. Even the wildest success of family planning would not stop growth until the middle of the next century. Anything short of that will leave Egypt's efforts to climb out of the Third World swamped by new mouths to feed.

"What overpopulation means in Egypt is a deteriorating quality of life," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist in Cairo. "It means the spread of malnutrition, shantytowns, poverty, violence, crime, and religious and political extremism."

Egypt is a desert country, almost entirely desolate and barren, except for the Nile Valley into which the overwhelming majority of the population is crowded. Along the life-giving Nile, the Egyptian countryside seethes with fertility. The very earth is hot, like a womb, and gives forth plants and crops in profusion. Everywhere there is the abundance of reproduction: Goats nose through garbage with their kids, geese noisily scold goslings, donkeys leave a trail in dung that breeds flies, which feed the birds. To preach curbs on fertility seems to rail against the rising sun.

Surprisingly, the most effective weapon is television. With help from the Johns Hopkins University, Egypt has used soap operas and one-minute dramas on television in its campaign.

Even in mud-brick homes of rural villages, there often is a television. Those who do not have a TV set watch at the local coffeehouses popular in Egypt.

"Ninety percent of the population watches television," says Phyllis Tilson Piotrow, director of the JHU Center for Communication Programs in the School of Public Health.

Television is used to combat the superstition, tradition and rumors that discourage birth control. In conservative Egypt, adults still blanch at frank talk about sex.

"I don't want to know what is happening inside me. It embarrasses me," says Kamala Ahmed, 27, a mother of four in Cairo. Does she discuss sex with her daughter? Her hands fly to her face as though to ward off danger.

"No, no," she says. "I would not tell her anything because it might open her mind too much. I do not want to open her eyes."

Hopkins advisers helped Egypt produce a soap opera, "And the Nile Flows On," in 1992. They created spot ads in which a harried mother of six confronts the cool and collected mother of two, or the kindly doctor convinces a man he is still virile without a squadron of sons.

"If you want to reach people and change their behavior, you can't just preach at them and lecture them. You have to entertain them," says Dr. Piotrow, who is in Cairo for the population conference.

It worked. Surveys showed women learned about contraceptives from television, and began to use them.

The rise in birth control "is absolutely, directly related" to the television campaign, says Jose G. Rimon, the JHU project director.

In a poor neighborhood of Cairo, Fawzia Mohammed, 39, has a television -- and little else. Her home is two bare, concrete rooms, undecorated but for the cracks in the walls. She lives here with her four children on what her husband gives her -- about $65 a month.

"You make do with what you have," she says with a shrug, reaching into her purse for a rumpled Egyptian pound to buy a Pepsi for her visitor. Hospitality is rich among the poor.

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