TEHRAN, 12 Jul 2004 (IRIN) - Iran's population growth rate has declined by more than half over the past 10 years and infant mortality rates are low, at 28 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) announced at a seminar celebrating World Population Day on Sunday.
Held at Tehran University in the west of the capital, the focus of World Population Day 2004 was reducing infant and maternal mortality. The event was supported by the Ministry of Health, with representatives from the Iranian government, civil society, foreign diplomats and other UN agencies attending. The head of the Centre for Women's Participation, Zahra Shojaei, also spoke about women's empowerment and the minister of health gave a presentation on reproductive and primary health care.
Launching a new five-year plan, UNFPA said that fertility rates in Iran are close to, or at, replacement levels and contraceptive usage levels have risen from 65 to 74 per cent. Mohamed Abdel-Ahad, UNFPA's resident representative, praised Iran for implementing a "positive and promising population growth rate", pointing out that life expectancy at birth has risen to nearly 70 years for both sexes.
"Positive steps are being taken to address some reproductive health issues that have been regarded as sensitive in the past, such as HIV/AIDS, gender equality, adolescent reproductive health and violence against women," Abdel-Ahad told IRIN.
"Iran's achievement should provide a model for other developing countries, especially Muslim ones," he added. The country's improvements should not overshadow the challenges ahead such as promoting gender equality and boosting reproductive health care, particularly for adolescents and men, he noted.
UNFPA said the major challenge for Iran is to address the needs of Iran's 13-24 year-olds, who account for a staggering third of the country's total population. Their needs for jobs, housing, reproductive health care and other social services will shape the human development outlook of Iran.
"If the needs of these baby-boomers are met and the present fertility rates, which reach replacement level persist, then young people will form an invigorating labour force with fewer dependents to support," Abdel-Ahad said.
"This will result in greater productivity savings and investments with significant prospects for development which will turn this young generation into a 'population bonus'," he added, referring to a term used by demographers to describe a country where fertility rates are low and the largest proportion of the population is aged between 25-40 years.
With a smaller number of dependents to support, such a country generates surplus wealth, allowing for greater savings which could translate into investments which boost the economy. The countries known as the Asian Tigers - Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia - are prime examples of this model.
Abdel-Ahad predicted that Iran can attain the same economic boom if certain prerequisites are met, including "maintaining replacement fertility rates and meeting the needs of young people for employment, housing and health care, including reproductive health care and other social services", he said.
Iran's unemployment rate is still a cause for concern at 12 per cent and housing is a major issue in cities. Rural to urban migration has created large urban sprawls with rocketing house prices and developers hungry to cash in on the housing boom - high-rise blocks sprout on a daily basis in Tehran.
Iran's conservative Islamic regime means that discussing issues such as teenage sex education is fraught with difficulties, but the UNFPA official praised the Islamic republic for its efforts.
"Despite the interpretation of Iran's culture as conservative, Iran has made strong headway in the field of population control. The government has been very committed to population developmental issues and their commitment has been manifested in decisive changes they have made in the demographic policy of the country, in incorporating gender concerns and in development planning and implementation, and a nationwide family planning programme," he said.
"They are on the right track and Iran can provide a role model for other developing countries - especially Muslim ones," he added, saying that modern Iranian women and men have better access to affordable reproductive health and family planning services.
World Population Day 2004 coincided with the 10th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, where 179 governments reached a landmark agreement on a 20-year Programme of Action to address population issues. The conference marked a shift in population policies, away from demographic targets to promoting voluntary and informed choices in family planning.
According to ICPD, universal access to education and reproductive health services, the attainment of reproductive rights and the empowerment of women, so that couples can decide freely on the number of children they want, will lead to population stabilization and poverty alleviation within households and nations.
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