As per the present rate of population growth of the People's Republic of China and of India, the two countries will constitute one-third of the world's population by 2015. This means that every third person will either be a Chinese or an Indian.
This does not alarm Dr Baige Zhao, vice-minister of the Chinese government's National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC), who was in India recently for the 4th Asia Pacific Conference On Reproductive And Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSH). The next APCRSH will be held in China, in 2009.
"We don't consider our population of 1.3 billion as a burden but consider it to be human resource, with the capability to take the nation forward. However, at the same time, family planning is imperative," says Zhao.
But family planning does not mean that the government enforces the 'one-child norm' she points out. Zhao believes that China's family planning policy has been misinterpreted in the Western world. "Actually, the family planning policy is diversified according to different situations. In cities, it is one child for one family. But in the rural areas, the policy allows two children and in minority communities like in Tibet, there is no restriction on the number of children in one family. The total fertility rate (average number of children a woman has in her lifetime) is 1.8 in China," she informs.
Zhao, who is also chairperson of the International Council on Management of Population Programme, contends the population balances out in this fashion. "Family planning in China has gradually transformed - from slowing down population growth to the promotion of holistic human development, while addressing population issues. Our law on population and family planning stipulates that family planning technical services adhere to the principle of national guidance and voluntarism of the people."
In China, all family planning services are rendered free of cost. According to Zhao, usage of contraceptives in her country was as high as 83 per cent, with 60 per cent opting for intra-uterine devices. Thirty per cent of the people had opted for sterilization. "In fact, we understand that people are a little frightened of sterilization operations and post-operative care. That is why we have a staff strength of one million people, involved in providing information and quality reproductive health services for all. They ensure that the people make informed choices and that they know that sterilization is meant for those families who already have two children. However, there is a need for more work in the area of female condoms before they can be introduced," she points out.
Zhao, who holds a doctoral degree from Cambridge University, was instrumental in developing the 10th five-year plan for China's family planning programme (2001-2005). In fact, she spearheaded national projects on improving quality of RSH (Reproductive Sexual Health) services and promotion of the health of women and children through informed choices. She firmly believes that the gender dimension is critical in reproductive and sexual health and rights. With women accounting for 28.7 per cent of the total number of persons infected with HIV and AIDS, she says that RSH should not be seen as just 'women's issues' but should concern the whole society.
According to Zhao, one of the biggest factors undercutting their efforts to promote gender equality has been the preference for sons, which has lead to an imbalance in sex ratio at birth in China. In 2005, the sex ratio at birth was 120 boys for 100 girls born. In the rural provinces, the number was as high as 130. "Like in India, people want sons so that they can take the family lineage forward and take care of them in their old age. Also, there are some laws that allow only boys to inherit. We realized that if there was no effective curb on the continuously rising abnormal sex ratio at birth, the surplus of men in the population would lead to a marriage squeeze - leading to a higher risk of social and family instability," she says.
So, in addition to promulgating laws prohibiting discrimination against girls and against maltreatment of women giving birth to girls, and discarding the female babies, there was a crackdown on illegal sex determination clinics.
Realizing that a proactive programme to protect girls was also required to supplement the law, the NPFPC launched 'Care for Girls', a three-year pilot initiative in 2003 in the 24 worst affected provinces, like Wuwei and Qishan, to safeguard rights of women to life and development. In addition to ensuring political commitment by the local governments, special health and monitoring services for pregnant women have been put in place.
But, the most effective initiative has been the social security system wherein an allowance as old age support is given to families with no sons. Once a person reaches the age of 60, he or she is eligible to claim an annual allowance of 600 Chinese yuans (US$1=CNY 7.40). Also, farmers are granted medical security and families with daughters-only get preferential loans to help them with agricultural production.
In fact, under this scheme, daughters from families with no sons are entitled to bonus marks when they take college entrance examinations and to "special treatment" when they step into the job market.
Now, after three years of rigorous implementation in the counties, there are some visible signs of the narrowing of the gap in the sex ratio at birth. From 133.8 boys per 100 girls born in 2000, the number has decreased to 119.6 boys to 100 girls in 2005. The success of the Care for Girls programme prompted the NPFPC to extend the campaign to all the provinces from 2006. Recently, 10,000 people from across China got together, via video conferencing, to discuss how they could implement the campaign better.
Zhao, recognized as a national outstanding civil servant (1998-2003), strongly believes that greater participation of women in political, economic and cultural sectors is needed for the voices of women to be heard. China has legislated that every prefecture (political body in each province) must have at least one woman. "But one is not enough. We want more and that is why we have reserved 22 per cent for women in the National People's Congress (China's national assembly)."
China hopes to bring the gender ratio among newborn babies back to the normal by 2010 by empowering women and educating its adolescent population. It has adapted from the successful adolescent programme in Malaysia about how to involve religious groups, non-governmental organizations and the media in raising awareness about marriage and reproductive and sexual health.
However, it still has a long road ahead says Zhao. China must consider issues like pre-marital sex, unwanted pregnancies and abortion seriously. These need to be recognized as social issues of the young and addressed sensitively. Only then can it make a difference.