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Proposed Iranian Laws Are Setback for Women

By Henry Ridgwell, VOA

"God, I'm right here. Where are you?"
(cartoon by Bozorgmehr Hosseinpur)

LONDON- Proposed new laws in Iran would restrict women’s access to birth control and jobs, according to human rights group Amnesty International.

The group expressed alarm at two bills, moving through Iran’s parliament, that aim to arrest the country’s plunging birth rate and declining population, seen in Tehran as major threats to the Islamic Republic’s future.

In a report issued this week, Amnesty International said the government wants to turn young women into “baby-making machines” by restricting their use of contraceptives and excluding them from the labor market.

"The Iranian authorities are trying to, first of all, ban voluntary female sterilization, which is interestingly the second most-common method of birth control in Iran after pills," said Raha Bahreini, Amnesty’s Iran researcher. "They are also restricting access to information about sexual reproductive health and, specifically, methods of contraception."

The bill also would ban vasectomies.

Impact predicted

Such restrictions could have far-reaching consequences for Iranian women, Bahreini said.

"They will have no option but to continue with their unwanted pregnancies when it’s not their choice to do, or terminate their pregnancies through illegal and unsafe abortions."

The hardship of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, combined with government policies aimed at reducing family size, led to a plunging birth rate, said Shereen Hussein, a demographer and senior research fellow at King’s College London.

"The fertility decline hadn’t started until the late 1980s in Iran. But then it declined very sharply," she said.

The Amnesty report said policies introduced in 1989 led to "a steady decline in the country’s fertility rate - from 7.0 births per women in 1980 to 5.5 in 1988, 2.8 in 1996" to 1.8 last year, below the so-called replacement level of roughly 2.2 births per woman.

In this country of 77 million, marriage rates also are falling and divorce rates are rising.

It adds up to a declining population, Hussein said.

"It’s not only contraceptives and family planning, it’s also the dynamics of marriage, the divorce rate, the remarriage, the age of marriage," Hussein said. "That, combined with economic hardship, made it very difficult for people to start families and have children."

Iranian women greeting President Rohani during his March 2015 visit to Qom

Workforce restrictions

Amnesty said a second proposed law would entrench discrimination by giving priority for job vacancies to men and to women who already have children. Young women without children would be at the bottom of the pile.

"And that means women will be further excluded from the labor market in Iran," Bahreini said. "Also, it tries to make divorce more difficult to obtain. Women already face a lot of obstacles in getting divorced and they do not have equal divorce rights as men."

Iran’s objective is to combat a declining and aging population. But the policies would incur additional short-term economic pain, Hussein said.

"Having more children could be a solution in the longer term. But that is again attached to a higher economic value, especially in the short term, when you have increased demand for health services and education services," the demographer said.

Hussein said demographic challenges are being felt across the region as aging populations put an increasing strain on government services.

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