Pakistan, Let’s Talk About Sex

I learned my first lesson about how babies are born from a magazine called Happy Home. It was published by a department of the Pakistani government called the Ministry of Population. The ministry was supposed to encourage people to have fewer babies, and it went about that in a rather coy fashion.

The magazine exhorted people to pace themselves; I remember it used the poetic Urdu phrase, waqfa bahut zaroori hai, “a break is important.” I was about 10, and I remember even more clearly the illustration of a small family, a man and a woman and two chubby children, sitting around a stove and eating. I concluded that babies are conceived by sitting around a stove and eating.

When the provisional results of Pakistan’s most recent census came out last month, after massive delays, they seemed to indicate that the message of Happy Home was lost on most Pakistanis, too. Pakistan’s population now exceeds 207 million, an increase of 57 percent since the last census in 1998. Pakistan has become the fifth-most populous country in the world.

At this rate, the physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy has warned, in 150 years Pakistan will be a standing-room-only kind of place. Overpopulation will be a terrible strain on natural resources and state services. Already today, every eighth child in the world who is not in school lives in Pakistan.

I must have read that Happy Home magazine about 40 years ago, but things haven’t changed much here when it comes to conversations about how babies are made. Despite warnings about a population explosion, we still don’t talk about population control. Talking about population control might require talking about sex, and you can’t really talk about sex on prime time TV or the radio, in Parliament or at village gatherings. Ads for condoms are often banned. There’s the occasional valiant attempt — like Clinic Online, a call-in TV show about sexual health — but “sex” remains a dirty word. As if just saying it was the same as doing it. We don’t even talk about sex with the person we’re doing it with. 

The Pakistani government could have involved the clergy to dispel the common myth that contraception is somehow un-Islamic, but it hasn’t. There also used to be a myth about the campaign to vaccinate children against polio: That it was a cover for an American conspiracy to sterilize Pakistanis. Then the government got imams to explain on TV that it really wasn’t Allah’s will to cripple the next generation. Yet clerics aren’t preaching that even though God wants you to have good, wholesome sex with your legitimate partner, that shouldn’t stop you from using a condom or taking a birth-control pill. Read more via New York Times