Health & population growth in Yemen [Archives:2002/28/Health]

July 8 2002

Health and population growth are two issues closely interrelated to each other. The introduction of modern health services usually results in the reduction of mortality rates long before fertility rates are affected. This in turn accelerates population growth, leading to economic and social burdens. Yemen is no exception to this pattern, which can be found in most developing countries. To ease population pressure, family planning programs have to become an integral part of the healthcare system. More importantly, traditional attitudes need to be changed and the role of women strengthened. Education and aspirations for improved living standards can be important agents of change. Female education is another factor that should be considered.
Yemen is still in the early phase of demographic transition. Birth rates are very high. As a matter of fact, with an annual increase of 3.7%, Yemen has the fastest growing population of the world after Gaza Strip. Part of the problem is reflected in traditions that date back to the times when child mortality was also extremely high.
With the introduction of modern health services in Yemen in the 1970s and 1980s, mortality rates dropped sharply while birth rates changed very little. As a result, natural population growth increased from about 2% a year three decades ago to 3.7% in recent years. As health services further extend to rural areas and as their quality improves steadily, average life expectancy will continue to increase leading to higher population growth rates. Unless there is a significant decline in fertility rates, the population will grow even faster leading to disastrous economic consequences.
By mid-1997, the population of Yemen is estimated to have reached 16.5 million; it has now reached close to 18 million. A national population census conducted in the 1994 presumed such an increase long before it happened. Average fertility and birth rates are still high, resulting in high population growth rates. But these rates have come down significantly in urban areas where living and education standards are better than those in rural areas.
Population policy
The government used to act passively concerning the population growth issue. Humble efforts were made to promote family planning of it was presented as a health measure to promote maternal and child health. Initial programs were developed and managed by non-government organizations such as the Yemen Family Care Association and the Yemen Red Crescent Society. Both were supported by the United Nations Fund for Population activities, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and other foreign donors.
In the late 1980s, population issues began to be recognized more clearly. The analysis of the 1986 and 1988 census data revealed disturbing findings with regard to future population growth and its impact on peoples welfare. Policy makers and planners became interested in demographic trends and started discussing programs to reduce fertility rates. In March 1989, a conference on Islam and population attended by religious leaders from Yemen and other countries recommended the adoption of national programs. The main goal was a reduction of the high population growth rate to bring it more into line with the countrys capacity for social and economic development.
The growing interests in population issues led to the first National Population Conference in October 1991 sponsored by the government and attended by key government representatives, private and international organizations. The conference supported a number of board policy goals and objectives including the reduction of fertility and mortality rates and the enhancement of womens participation in economic and social activities. The participants proposed a detailed action plan and the establishment of a national population council. The government subsequently endorsed the plan (November 1991) and issued a decree setting up the council and technical secretariat (July 1992).
The National Population Council is chaired by the Prime Minister and includes cabinet members responsible for different aspects of the evolving strategy. The Council coordinates the activities and programs of various agencies and organizations. Monitors their progress, and decides on appropriate follow-up.
A second national population conference was organized in 1996. Like the first one, it helped focus public attention on the problem of high fertility in Yemen. Largely as a result of these two conferences and as a consequence of the focus given to population issues by the National Population Council, external assistance for family planning has increased. The efforts by the council have resembled a milestone in targeting one of the most devastating problems of Yemen, i.e., population growth.
* Originally published in the book Health Care in Least Developed Countries written by Dr. Abdullah Abdulwali Nasher.