ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan aims to raise its rate of contraception use to at least 50% within the next three years in a bid to help control its fast-growing population, Health Minister Saira Afzal Tarar said.
Observers have warned that Pakistan's population boom is negating any economic progress, using up valuable resources in a young country where jobs are scarce and almost 60 million people live below the poverty line.
The contraceptive prevalence rate, or percentage of women who are using or whose sexual partners are using contraception, stands at about 35%, Tarar told participants at an Islamabad event to mark World Population Day Tuesday (July 11).
"Our government fully recognises that issues of sustainability, climate change, women's empowerment are all embedded in these population trends and deserve our focus," Tarar said, according to a ministry statement.
Pakistanis will be offered "greater contraceptive choice through an improved method mix, better counselling and expanding the use of long acting reversible methods," she said.
Pakistan has the highest birth rate in South Asia at about three children per woman, according to the World Bank and government figures.
Sex education is lacking in the country and specialists have long called for greater awareness, access to contraceptive methods and the empowerment of women to make their own reproductive choices.
Raising contraceptive use to 50% would put it just below neighbouring India, whose rate is 53.5%, according to the World Bank.
Pakistan is currently awaiting the results of its first census in nearly two decades, but Tarar said the population had grown from about 110 million in 1989 to more than 190 million by 2017.
The census is expected to show that growth remains high, say demographers.
Family planning is the key to development, said social mobiliser Naveen Bibi of Pakistan Village Development Foundation.
"We need to increase public awareness about the ways and means to control [our] population explosion," she told Pakistan Forward.
"Family planning doesn't mean stopping producing children, but we need to stress birth-spacing to ensure population control as well as the health of mothers and their newborn babies," she said.
Qari Rohullah Madni, chief khatib of Peshawar District, is also a staunch supporter of population control measures, saying families should be small to ensure educated, healthy children.
"Islam needs educated people," he told Pakistan Forward. "Our religion stresses educating people so they can learn the religion as well as how to live life in accordance with the teachings of Islam."
Religious scholars can play an important role in educating the public about the need for population control to curb hunger and homelessness, Madni said.
"For this purpose, we fully support our government and civil society organisations [in their efforts] to reduce population growth," he said.
"Contraception is the best way to have small and happy families," he added.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government has been aggressively pursuing an agenda to cope with the growing population, said KP Director-General of Health Dr. Shabina Raza.
"Our staffers at the hospitals have been giving free advice to the women about birth-spacing as it is the best way to control population growth," she told Pakistan Forward.
"We have also enlisted the support of NGOs and religious leaders to raise awareness among the public that population control methods are allowed in Islam," she said. "Our country needs population control measures in order to have prosperous families and for the nation to progress."
[Ashfaq Yusufzai from Peshawar contributed to this report.]