Pakistan has a rare asset – a young population in an ageing world. The theme of this year’s World Population Day, 11th July, Investing in Young People, makes it the right day to ask what is being done to prepare Pakistan’s young people for the future and ask what future we want them to inherit?
Forty per cent of Pakistan’s people are aged 10-29 years. This exceptional “youth bulge” is a temporary phenomenon and will be gone within a generation. Also called a “youth dividend”, it provides an opportunity to invest in and harness the potential of this young generation and lay a strong foundation for the future of Pakistan. But this will not happen by chance.
Right now in Pakistan over 450,000 children each year don’t get a life because they die before birth or shortly afterwards. Despite progress, Pakistan still has high rates of maternal, newborn and infant mortality. Poor health and nutritional status of mothers combined with too frequent childbearing and lack of access to trained health workers are the primary causes of these largely preventable deaths of mothers and infants. Pakistan’s National Nutrition Survey 2011 found high rates of nutritional deficiencies among pregnant women. Around half, for example, had iron deficiency anemia, which puts mothers at risk during childbirth. Undernourished mothers pass their poor nutritional status onto their unborn child. Those children stand less chance of living to adulthood and many are born with lifetime physical and intellectual handicaps. The same Nutrition Survey found 43% of children under five were stunted or small for their age. Stunting reduces the size of both the brain and the body, robbing both the child and society of their full intellectual potential. Imagine the Einsteins lost to Pakistan each year.
This tragic vicious cycle can be turned into a virtuous cycle with investment in young people, particularly adolescent girls. Currently, a large percentage of adolescent girls are not in education, paid work or married. They are at home. Incentives to keep such girls in secondary school would make it possible to address their nutrition, equip them with skills for life and employment and result in healthier mothers who would pass their good health, literacy and wisdom onto the next generation. It would delay the age of marriage and age of first childbirth. There is a mistaken belief among some that once a girl reaches puberty she is old enough to bear a child. In fact, her body is still growing and younger mothers are at higher risk of complications and death during pregnancy and childbirth.
These educated young women would be more likely to use family planning to space their families and have fewer children, safeguarding their own health and those of their children. Currently, Pakistan has a low contraceptive prevalence rate at 35% and 20% of married couples cannot access the family planning they want to space their families. This isn’t Pakistan being held back by a conservative culture, as often claimed. It is about meeting the demand for contraceptives by married couples, who want to space their families because they want a better life for their children.
In 1950 Pakistan’s population was 37 million people. It is now over 187 million. Some estimate it will exceed 300 million by the time today’s young people are grandparents. World Population Day is the right time to plan for a better future for Pakistan by investing in young people today.
UNFPA Representative Pakistan