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Tajikistan: Family-Planning Initiative Meets With Mixed Response

In Soviet times, Tajik women were encouraged to have as many children as possible. Today, however, the government and other organizations are supporting family-planning initiatives focusing on the health of the mother and families' financial well-being. Supporters of the plan say Tajikistan's population has grown by over a third over the past 14 years, and with some 60 percent of its people living below the poverty line, it is time for the country to change its traditional preference for large families. But as RFE/RL reports, many opponents to family planning remain in Tajikistan.

Prague, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sainoz Sharifova, a mother of seven, spends six days a week selling sunflower seeds in a Dushanbe market.

She travels every morning from a small village in suburban Hisor Valley to the capital and the money she earns here is her family's only income. Her husband was disabled in a car accident several years ago, and Sharifova says she is barely able to make ends meet.

Rising early to make the trip to the market, she also says she cannot afford to spend quality time with her children. "I hardly see or talk to my children every day," Sharifova says. "I come back late from the market and have no time to ask about their day or read them a story."

"It is difficult. I have to feed them and buy clothes, and at the same time I have to think about their upbringing. One of my children is a student. He needs pocket money every day; he needs books, clothes. I can hardly afford that. I am the only breadwinner for all of them," Sharifova says.

In Soviet times, Tajik women like Sharifova were encouraged by the government to have lots of children. Mothers with more than four children received a number of privileges, including tax breaks, as well as substantial child benefits and fully paid early retirement. Maternity leave could last up to three years without the risk of losing a job.

Guljahon Bobosodiqova, the head of Tajikistan's Educated Women, a nongovernmental organization, tells RFE/RL that today the policy is quite different.

"Unlike some other countries, our government does not have a special program that controls family size or the number of children. But a lot of propaganda is going on. People are being told that they should think about mothers' and children's health before deciding to extend their families. Also, parents should think about if they can financially afford to have more children. Both government and nongovernmental organizations are taking part in this [unofficial] campaign," Bobosodiqova says.

Most women in Tajikistan are educated about family planning, and have easy access to birth control pills and condoms. According to women's rights activists, a high number of Tajik women suffer from anemia, and the condition is especially widespread among mothers.

Supporters of the family planning scheme argue that with 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line, many Tajik families cannot afford to properly feed eight to 10 children.

Although thousands of Russian-speakers and other nationalities like ethnic Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmens left Tajikistan during the 1990s, the country is far from facing a demographic crisis. To the contrary, the State Statistics Committee has announced that Tajikistan's population has increased by 1.5 million -- or by a third -- over the past 14 years.

According to local experts, Tajik families have five to six children on average. Giving birth to up to 10 children is not uncommon in the country.

Some people say it is a Central Asian tradition to have a lot of children. However, Bobosodiqova of the Educated Women's organization insists that there is a connection between people's social background and the size of their families. Educated women usually opt for having fewer children, and devote more attention to quality of their upbringing.

"[Having a big family] has nothing to do with our traditions. In many cases it depends on both parents' backgrounds. If they both are educated, it is likely that they will understand the necessity of family planning," she says.

The family planning issue has its vocal opponents too. Hoji-Muhammad Umarov, an expert with the Tajik Economic Research Institute, tells RFE/RL that the birth rate has declined in Tajikistan over the past two years. Umarov says the hundreds of thousands of young Tajik men who travel to Russia every year in search of work sometimes decide to get married and permanently settle in Russia. According to Umarov's calculations, predictions of a "population explosion" are off the mark. He says Tajikistan's population will hardly reach eight million by the year 2015.

"We have family planning programs, but we don't need them, because the birth rate is decreasing in Tajikistan. For instance, a few years ago the birth rate was 37 babies per person, now the figure decreased by 28. The main reason is poverty. People know that they cannot afford to bring up eight or 10 children. Our women are not illiterate. They understand the issue."

Sharifova, the mother of seven, is not aware of the debate raging over the family planning issue. She doesn't read newspapers, saying she has no time for that. She does, however, have her own opinion about the ideal family size.

"Times were different when I had my children. Prices were affordable, and we had everything we needed. In the current situation, two children are enough for a family -- well, maximum three," she says.

For women like Sharifova, such opinions come not from newspapers, but from experience.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.