By Natalia Davlatova in Dushanbe (RCA No. 133, 30-July-02)
Dushanbe is wrestling with a population explosion that threatens to devastate the already impoverished country.
In the light of the current economic crisis, the old Tajik proverb "a big family is a rich family" has been turned on its head.
"Until citizens can consciously practise birth control, there will be no economic prosperity," warned Shamsiddin Kurbanov, director of the Centre for Reproductive Health and Family Planning, CRHFP.
He was speaking at a July 11 press conference held by the local office of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, UNFPA, to mark International Population Day.
The crisis is so acute that the Tajik parliament passed a new law on reproductive health on June 19, in an attempt to stem the rise. The legislation outlined a policy aimed at encouraging the use of contraception and other birth control measures.
Earlier this year, President Imomali Rakhmonov, speaking at a family planning conference, said demographic problems were "especially critical for third world countries" such as Tajikistan. He stressed that the population was growing at a time when the economy was shrinking - and contributing to the impoverishment of the country.
The facts speak for themselves. Over the last decade, the population has risen from 5.5 to 6.25 million. Growth has been fastest among the rural poor, where numbers have ballooned from 3.8 to 4.6 million. At the same time, the country's gross revenue has roughly halved to 1.9 billion somoni, 674 million US dollars. While the problem of excessively large families partly stems from conservative Islamic tradition which promotes the former, it was exacerbated in the Soviet era, when women were rewarded for giving birth - 10,000 receiving the Hero Mother Order for having ten or more children.
Now international organisations say the demographic crisis is partly responsible for the fact that around a third of population is suffering from acute malnourishment and 80 per cent of people live below the poverty line.
Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan, Maxim Peshkov, said around two million of the youngest and most able-bodied Tajiks were in Russia, working to feed their large families back home.
UNFPA's Tajik office claims the rate of population growth is slowing from 31.3 to 27 live births per thousand in 1998 and 2000 respectively.
However, UNFPA officials and even the president admit these figures do not reflect reality. In May, family planning officials working with the UN childrens' charity, UNICEF, and government experts from Italy investigated more than 2,000 villages in 27 regions. The results have not yet been released but Kurbanov says preliminary estimates suggest the reproduction rate is higher than the official statistics.
The explanation for the official "drop" in population growth lies in the fact that children are only given birth certificates on enrolling in school. Many parents in rural areas cannot afford to educate their families, so their kids go unrecorded.
The rural areas - where around three-quarters of the population resides - face the biggest economic danger faces. A low level of economic growth means the majority have to live off what they grow.
President Rakhmonov says the population may reach eight million by 2010, which means today's average of 0.1 hectare of irrigated land per inhabitant will fall to 0.08, which is inadequate for even subsistence faming. Because of the country's mountainous geographical location, an increase in the total area under agricultural cultivation is not feasible.
The situation has deteriorated in the five months. In the south of the country, torrential rains, hail and floods this spring washed away much of the fertile topsoil on the best-irrigated land. To make matters worse, this was followed by an unprecedented plague of locusts.
Tajikistan, now the poorest country in the CIS, cannot feed its people and the only solution is the continued migration of working-age males to Russia, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan.
However, this generates other problems. According to Kurbanov, the general health of the population is declining partly as a result of sexually transmitted diseases brought home by Tajiks who have been working elsewhere. CRHFP says 34 per cent of women of childbearing age in the southern Khatlon Oblast are suffering from venereal disease.
Around four to five per cent of children in this area are born with congenital syphilis. As the men do not protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, many children are born with defects, damaging the gene pool as a whole.
CRHFP specialists are trying to educate the population about birth control, and special attention is given to villagers who not only cannot afford contraception but do not even know what it is. Even among the urban population, the main method used is abortion.
Natalia Davlatova is a journalist with Telecom Technology in Dushanbe