These are revolutionary times in the Middle East. In the past two years many of the Middle Eastern countries along with their North African neighbors have witnessed major demonstrations against local dictators. Some of these protests have even led to political upheavals unthinkable only a few years ago. In a region where democracy has largely been a mirage, the sight of young men and women standing up to riot police sent by the thug in power has been nothing short of a sweeping revolution. Together, people across the world have been fixated on the struggle of the common man against the all-powerful dictator.
But all along, the world has been oblivious to a silent revolution in the Middle East that has only been all-too-apparent. Believe it or not, women in Middle East are having less children than their mothers and grandmothers. That is highly contradictory to the popular notion that women in the Middle East, who have much less education and rights compared to men, are giving birth to an ever-rising number of children.
Not only does this fact clash with common belief but it is also starkly refuted by statistical evidence. Typically, the fertility rate, or the number of children a woman is likely to have during the ages of 15 to 49, is high among societies with strict religious beliefs and low female literacy, a condition prevalent in many Middle Eastern countries. But the countries in the region are turning conventional knowledge on its head.
To be sure, fertility levels have been declining across the world. In fact, nearly half the world’s population today lives in places where the number of children born are only enough to replace the current numbers. The so-called ‘replacement fertility level’ is estimated to be around 2.1 children per woman. If every woman in a country gives birth to only two children during her lifetime then the population of the country will remain constant. When the fertility level exceeds 2.1, the population of the country is bound to increase, and when the fertility level declines below 2.1 the total population is likely to decrease in absolute terms.
In the Middle East, the fertility level is decreasing at an astonishing pace. In the latest population study conducted by the United Nations, eight of the 15 countries that saw the biggest drop in fertility rates are from the Middle East. While Iran saw the biggest drop in fertility rates, Tunisia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco followed. A typical woman in Iran of the mid-1970s gave birth to nearly seven children. Today, an average Iranian woman does not want more than two children. Likewise, an Omani woman today is likely to have almost 5.6 fewer babies than her mother.
There are many reasons behind the sudden decline in fertility. For one, the level of education, although relatively low compared to many developed economies, is improving in the Middle East. For instance, the literacy level among rural women in Iran during the 1970’s was under 10%. But that number has now jumped to nearly 90%. Increased education at some level has led to higher use of contraceptives among women in some of the Middle Eastern countries as well. While research has explained some causes of declining fertility, none explain the dramatic implosion in fertility in the region. Two prominent scholars Nicholas Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah of the American Enterprise Institute, who have researched the issue extensively, say more research is required to explain the intriguing fall in fertility.
While the reasons behind the plunging fertility may be debated, their implications seem more clear-cut. The population of the region is going to be lot less than projected in the years to come. For instance, in its 2000 projection, the United Nations Population Division estimated that Yemen would have 102 million people by 2050. In 2010, it revised Yemen’s future population to just 42 million people by 2050. While a diminished population can lower the pressure on many resources, a dramatic fall in fertility could result in a rapid shrinking of the working age population in the long run. That can have far-reaching consequences for Middle Eastern countries where fewer workers will have to support more dependents like senior citizens and children.
Manpower declines could eventually constrain economic growth. While many East Asian economies and Western economies too face aging problems, the accumulation of technology and education have helped them raise living standards amidst slowing population growth, but in the case of the Middle East, economies could age even before they become rich.
And so it seems, just like the political upheavals in the region, the silent revolution of the Middle East, in which millions of adults are participating, is like any other. There will be profound changes but accompanied by immeasurable and uncertain outcomes.
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