The preliminary findings of the "Population and Housing Census 2022', " published in the last week of July, have marked the country's current population at 16.5 crores. However, the anatomised report would await us for a few more days.
The observed trend of decline in population growth and transformation of demographics after independence is optimistic. Still, the change of development vision in observing the population not as counting figures but as development agents through a fruitful transformation into human resources is crucial. From that perspective, it is important to reconsider the objectives of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).
In relation to ICPD, recently, a multi-stakeholder workshop was organised by Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) jointly with UNFPA to remind us of the pledges, in light of the ICPD summit, to achieve the population and development targets in the coming decade.
Undoubtedly, the ICPD targets set in 1994 have had a significant impact on monitoring population policy outside the realm of bureaucratic impressions. Moreover, the revised action plan of ICPD on its 25th anniversary in 2019 chose the "Three Zeroes Agenda" to shed more specific focus on three compressed topics; firstly, zero 'unmet need' for family planning; secondly, zero gender-based violence and harmful practices and finally, zero preventable maternal deaths.
Bangladesh's progress toward achieving this population policy goal is commendable. However, there are still challenges in some respects. Particularly, the Covid-19 pandemic has marred some progress made over the years; even then, it is critical to be dedicated to current Bangladesh's population management strategy. But persistent challenges like child marriage and unintended pregnancies remain high due to a lack of awareness about reproductive health.
The same applies to the culture of impunity and the absence of fair trials, triggering more gender-based violence incidences. Besides, ambiguity over the population policy creates a blurred strategic vision. Additionally, it's also critical to contrast the disproportionate reliance on institutional delivery with the caesarean birth rate, which is currently three times the global average.
Having set the scene, let's encounter some unsettling statistics regarding the three Zeroes Agenda.
First, a stagnant trend persists in the rate of maternal mortality reduction. On top of that, in South Asia, Bangladesh has the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy. Second, a recent report by UNFPA outlines that the number of child marriages has increased by 10% within a year. Alarmingly, the low level of interest among 15- to 24-year-olds in family planning adoption is also striking. Though marriage under the age of 18, according to the law, is prohibited, a significant number of girls are getting married before that.
Furthermore, there is a serious lack of knowledge regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights education or the way in which it should be promoted. As a result, it has become a double-edged sword by promoting child marriage while also increasing the number of unsafe abortions. Third, a 2015 poll by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) revealed that 54.7% of married women experienced marital violence, including both physical and psychological.
Amid these off-route statistics, a demographic dividend is hard to achieve while there is an increasing trend of child marriage, maternal mortality and violence against women. In order to resolve our population development dilemma, it is crucial to revisit the 2012 population policy once more. Active collaborative participation of the local government organisations, educational institutions, community leaders, and NGO workers is also vital in achieving ICPD commitments.
In addition, stronger social campaigns are required to prevent child marriage, just as strong action is required to eliminate domestic violence. Moreover, an analysis of the economic costs of violence against women should be conducted in the context of international experiences so that its repercussions on both the public and private sectors can be clearly understood.
But it's worth noting that the Eighth Five-Year Plan (2020–25) incorporates some significant demographic concerns for the first time to reap the benefit of important population issues like demographic dividend. Additionally, improved population management and the effects of ageing are the two population issues that also have been addressed in the policy plan. In terms of population policy, the priorities set forth in this strategy are reasonable.
Particularly, programmes for reproductive health and sexuality education have been reinforced and updated family planning programmes focusing on rural poor, urban slum people and remote regions are worthwhile.
However, in light of the ICPD aim, it is crucial to plan for the simultaneous expansion of the rural health system and trained workforce in order to elevate skilled childbirth/delivery from 59 to 72% by 2025. Albeit, a key concern remains in how effective the current implementation strategies are, even if these strong objectives and targets are rightfully articulated in the policy papers.
With a revisit of the 2012 population policy once more to overcome the population issue, the role of the the National Population Council needs to be functional and constructive. Continuation of family planning efforts and ensuring good healthcare governance in private facilities are also necessary.
Finally, in light of the "Three Zeroes Agenda," it is essential to give the urban poor and slum inhabitants more attention and to strengthen the work of these three agendas, we must also periodically assess the situation in all three areas, act accordingly, and implement priority action plans.
Shabbir Ahmed is Research Assistant, Power and Participant Research Centre (PPRC) and Hossain Zillur Rahman is Executive Chairman, Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC).
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.