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Population planning in Pakistan - 'perfect' failure?

The planners now need to move beyond the "Two children; happy family" syndrome. it is time to confront the fears and misgivings associated with the use of contraceptive products. The government's apprehensions of a backlash from target audiences is perhaps not well-founded . A study conducted for the National Institute of Population Studies shows that a majority (both men and women) favour the broadcast of family planning messages in the media. The present government, which is no longer allied to religious parties, has nothing to lose by taking a bold, imaginative approach to communication strategies for family planning.

The history of population planning in Pakistan is a history of failures, of lack of political commitment and will, and of distorted priorities. Statistics no longer shock - 410 births every hour, 80 per cent population lack sanitation facilities, 30 per cent exist below the poverty line. Communication strategies to reverse these trends and encourage the practice of family planning have been uninspiring. In Pakistan, the initiative in creating awareness of population growth was taken by a group of women.

In 1952, they set up the Family Planning Association of Pakistan (FPAP) and opened clinics in three major cities of Pakistan. Later, the government of Ayub Khan actively supported the efforts of the FPAP and a population control programme was incorporated in the second five-year plan (1960-65). When Ayub Khan, as head of state, publicly adopted the family planning programme, there were hopes that the problem would be checked in time. However, lack of a network of clinics apart, there was also a lack of a media and communications infrastructure, since even the use of radio, in pre-transistor days, was limited.

Ironically, today, with the mass media in an advanced stage of development (disproportionate, in fact, to other sectors), there seems to be a communications breakdown between planners and practitioners of population programmes. Communication strategies for propagating family planning have been as erratic as official policies on the issue. The failure of successive governments to take the bull by the horn is reflected in the kind of messages communicated to the target audience through the mass media.

For years, the message was "Do bachey, khushhalgharana" (two children; happy family) in television advertising, with a frivolous visual treatment and a catchy jingle on the sound-track. The images of a totally care-free family juxtaposed with two children lacked credibility and conviction. Moreover, by depicting a |perfect' family - a boy and a girl - the advertising implicitly reiterated the stereotyped concept of a |complete' family, i.e. one with at least one male and, preferably, one female child. The communication strategy ignored the fact that many couples continue to have children in the hope of having a boy (if they have only daughters) or a girl (if they have only sons). Instead of countering stereotypes, the advertising images only reaffirmed them. in view of the traditional preference for a male child, and also to help raise the status of the female child, some of the advertising, at least, could have shown two female children as comprising the |ideal' family.

However, perceptible, if not revolutionary, changes are taking place in communication strategies. The turning point was, perhaps, the national population conference, held in August 1991, at which the prime minister publicly sounded the alarm on the population crisis and avowed his government's commitment to the promotion of family planning.

Suddenly, there was a flurry of activities in the media. Some programmes, considering the conservative nature of the government-controlled electronic media, were milestones. Television even turned to soap for the propagation of family planning messages. A special serial, Aahat, produced by Sahira kazmi and funded by Johns Hopkins.university, went on air amidst criticism from religious leaders. Though inhibited in approach, the serial did break new ground. Supporting the play's message were commercial spots which, for the first time, provided information on the availability of contraceptives.

Other support strategies include testimonials of celebrities endorsing the need for a small family. In this series, scheduled just before the main news bulletin at 9 p.m., the minister for population planning himself made an appearance, apart from well-known sports and media personalities. One section of viewers also being reached through the long-running, weekly quiz programme Neelam Ghar. However, the poor quality of production and lack of attention to detail, such as props, settings, models, etc. dilute the effectiveness of these campaigns. The present strategy alone links population explosion with dwindling national resources. While there is a great potential for getting the message across in a dramatic, memorable way, the current generalised approach to the issue leaves viewers unmoved and uninvolved.

Presently, there is also a fair deal of misuse of media. For example, funds spent in placing ads in the expensive English press could be better utilised on non-traditional media. While English newspaper readers do need to be reached, the kind of messages being placed miss their target audience by a mile.

One significant area which the planners have shied away from is the promotion of products. In the mid-seventies, the Family Planning Association of Pakistan had initiated a programme for the commercial marketing of contraceptives. Planned to be launched with intensive use of the mass media, one of the objectives was to remove inhibitions associated with contraceptives. However, the coming into power of a government with the stated policy of "Islamization' effectively ruled out the possibility of a more liberal approach to the media.

The only product to be promoted in the mass media is Saathicondoms. Distributed by Woodwards (Pakistan) Limited, as part of a USAID-funded project, the advertising campaign was launched in mid-1988, the primary medium being television. Even then, PTV censored the product pack, while NTM which, till then, was independent of PTV's censor board, showed the commercial with the pack.

A survey conducted six months later shows how deeply ingrained the association of fewer children with a "happy" family is. While the core message of the advertising was that Saathi is a product to be used for spacing children, research showed that the main message recalled by approximately 70 per cent of the respondents (all male) was that of a "happy family".

The planners now need to move beyond the "Two children; happy family" syndrome. It is time to confront the fears and misgivings associated with the use of contraceptive products. The government's apprehensions of a backlash from target audiences is perhaps not well-founded. A study conducted for the National institute of Population Studies shows that a majority (both men and women) favour the broadcast of family planning messages in the media. The present government, which is no longer allied to religious parties, has nothing to lose by taking a bold, imaginative approach to communication strategies for family planning.
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Author:Yusuf, Zohra
Publication:Economic Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1121
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