Islam is not against population control: Benazir Bhutto says religious ideology is not an impediment to global policy

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THE PROBLEM of population stabilisation faced by us today cannot be divorced from our yesterdays. Ironically, population has risen fastest in areas which were weakened most by the unfortunate experience of colonial domination. The Third World communities have scarce resources spread thinly over a vast stretch of pressing human needs. We cannot tackle questions of population growth on a scale commensurate with the demographic challenge.

Since demographic pressures, together with migration from disadvantaged areas to affluent states, are urgent problems transcending national frontiers, it is imperative that in the field of population control, global strategies and national plans work in unison. Perhaps, that is a dream. But we all have a right to dream.

I dream of a Pakistan, of an Asia, of a world, where every pregnancy is planned and every child conceived is nurtured, loved, educated and supported. I dream of a Pakistan, of an Asia, of a world, where we can commit our social resources to the development of human life and not to its destruction. That dream is far from the reality we endure.

We are a planet in crisis, a planet moving towards catastrophe. The question is whether we have the will to do something about it. I say we do. We must.

What we need is a global partnership for improving the human condition. Our document should seek to promote the objective of planned parenthood, of population control. This conference must not be viewed by the teeming masses of the world as a universal social charter seeking to impose adultery, abortion, sex education and other such matters on individuals, societies and religions which have their own social ethos.

By convening this conference, the international community reaffirms its resolve that problems of a global nature will be solved through global efforts. Governments can do much to improve the quality of life in our society. But there is much they cannot do.

Governments do not educate our children. Parents educate children; more often mothers educate children. Governments do not teach values to our children. Parents teach values to our children; more often mothers teach values to children. Governments do not socialise youngsters into responsible citizens. Parents are the primary socialising agents in society; in most societies that job belongs to the mothers. How do we tackle population growth in a country like Pakistan? By tackling infant mortality, by providing villages with electrification, by raising an army of women, 33,000 strong, to educate our mothers, sisters daughters in child welfare and population control. By setting up a bank run by women for women, to help women achieve economic independence, and to have the wherewithal to make independent choices. I am what I am today because of a beloved father who left me independent means, to make independent decisions, free of male prejudice in my society, or even in my family.

As chief executive of one of the nine largest populated countries in the world, I and the government face the awesome task of providing for homes, schools, hospitals, sewerage, drainage, food, gas, electricity, employment and infrastructure.

In Pakistan, in a period of 30 years from 1951 to 1981, our population rose by 50 million. At present it is 126 million. By the year 2020 our population may be 243 million. Pakistan cannot progress if it cannot check its rapid population growth. Check it we must, for it is not the destiny of the people of Pakistan to live in squalor and poverty.

Leaders are elected to lead nations. Leaders are not elected to let a vocal narrow- minded minority dictate an agenda of backwardness. We are committed to an agenda for change, to take our mothers and infants into the 21st century with the hope of a better future, free from diseases that rack and ruin.

These are the battles that we must fight, not only as a nation but as a global community. These are the battles on which history - and our people - will judge us. These are the battles to which the mosque and the church must contribute, along with governments and other organisations and families.

Empowerment of women is one part of this battle. Today women pilots fly planes in Pakistan, women serve as judges in the superior judiciary, women work in police stations, women work in our civil service, our foreign service and our media. Our working women uphold the Islamic principle that all individuals are equal in the eyes of God. By empowering our women, we work for our goal of population stabilisation and, with it, promotion of human dignity.

Regrettably, the conference document contains serious flaws striking at the heart of a great many cultural values, in the North and in the South, in the mosque and in the church.

In Pakistan, our response will doubtless be shaped by our belief in the eternal teachings of Islam, a dynamic religion committed to human progress. The Holy Quran says: 'Allah wishes you ease, and wishes not hardship for you.'

Again, the Holy Book says: 'He has chosen you, and has not laid on you any hardship in religion.'

The followers of Islam have no conceptual difficulty in addressing questions of regulating population in the light of available resources. The only constraint is that the process must be consistent with abiding moral principles.

Islam lays a great deal of stress on the sanctity of life. The Holy Book tells us: 'Kill not your children on a plea of want. We provide sustenance for them and for you.' Islam, therefore, except in exceptional circumstances, rejects abortion as a method of population control.

There is little compromise on Islam's emphasis on the family unit. The traditional family is the basic unit on which any society rests. It is the anchor on which the individual relies. Islam aims at harmonious lives built upon a bedrock of conjugal fidelity and parental responsibility.

Muslims, with their overriding commitment to knowledge, would have no difficulty with dissemination of information about reproductive health, so long as its modalities remain compatible with their religious and spiritual heritage. Lack of an adequate infrastructure of services, not ideology, is our basic problem.

This is an abridged version of the address Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, gave to the world population conference in Cairo.

(Photograph omitted)