Wednesday, August 04, 2010

More on Iran's continuing demographic transition

Over at the Population Reference Bureau's Behind the Numbers blog, Farzaneh Roudi writes about the latest population-related news in Iran. trying to reverse the ongoing demographic transiton in Iran that I wrote about last July, Ahmedinejad wants to create a sort of baby bonus for prospective Iranian parents. This bonus, Roudi notes, won't go nearly far enough to overcome the real economic costs of parenthood.

Under this new plan each child born in the current Iranian year, which began March 21, will receive a $950 deposit in a government bank account. They will then continue to receive $95 every year until they reach 18. Parents will also be expected to pay matching funds into the accounts. Then, children can withdraw the money at the age of 20 and use it for education, marriage, health and housing. But Iranian parents, with their daily economic struggle to make the ends meet, know that this amount is not going to go far. This reminds me of when I was in Iran about 10 years ago, a few months after Dr. Marandi, former Iranian minister of health, received UNFPA’s annual award for his contribution to improving maternal and child health in Iran. When I told relatives and friends about Dr. Marandi’s award and the drop in fertility, they all had a similar reaction. They would laughingly say, “Why did HE receive the award? You only need to go to a grocery store and check prices and you can see for yourself why families don’t want to have more children.” And today, prices are even higher than 10 years ago.

This crude approach also underestimates the extent and depth of the changes in Iranian culture. Traditional gender norms, no matter how strictly the Iranian government might try to enforce them, are going.

Iranian women live a modern lifestyle that is often not seen in Western media that show women covered head to toe in black, as if they belong to centuries ago. Elementary school enrollment is universal; the gender gap in secondary school enrollment is almost closed; and more girls are enrolled in universities than boys. And more important, the educational system is modern and only a very small percentage of students attend religious schools—contrary to what is happening in some neighboring countries. In short, Ahmadinejad’s argument—rejecting family planning as a Western and secular plot – is not going to be bought by Iranians. Despite continued international economic sanctions and political isolations, secular ideas are pouring into the country through satellite TVs and the Internet. Iranians have the second-highest rate of Internet use in the Middle East and North Africa region, after the United Arab Emirates.

While I don’t see much reason for Ahmadinejd’s new policy to influence country’s overall fertility, the crude birth rate in Iran is going to increase for a decade or so, as the baby boomers go through their childbearing years. So one should not rush to judgment and attribute future increases in the number of births to the success of Ahmadinejad’s policy. Today, a significant portion of Iran’s population are in their 20s and early 30s (prime ages to marry and have children), born during the high-fertility era around the 1979 Islamic revolution and 1980s.

If anything, I'd suggest that Iran's government trying to force traditional gender roles on economically autonomous women could lead to women postponing or opting out of parenthood altogether, pushing Iran towards the lowest-low fertility trap that dominates southern Europe within a generation. That wouldn't do anything for Iran's economic prospects.

1 comment:

Fall of the House Usher said...

This entry was interesting. I think you are correct that the current will not be reversed by the present measures proposed by Iran's president.

I wouldn't be suprised to see Iran's TFR reach around the South Korean level or at least the lowest European level in about a decade.

It would be interesting to see how Iran's familial and work culture compares to those seen in other states in tne late stages of dwemographic transition though. Probably one of the less "traditional" in the MIddle East; however, more traditional than most long time low fertility cultures.