Written By: Hakim Almasmari
Article Date: Jun 26, 2007 - 5:37:04 AM
At any given moment, nearly 16 percent of women in Yemen are pregnant, according to the latest survey of health matters by the Ministry of Health. This is a very high number of pregnant women, particularly as the government has been trying to encourage people to carefully plan their families and space out births, so as not to risk the health of mothers and children. The strain of continuous pregnancy and birth can have a ruinous effect on women’s health, particularly if they begin having children at a young age. According to Yemen’s most recent Demographic, Maternal and Child Health Survey, 48 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18. Fourteen percent, meanwhile, were married before the age of 15.
Marrying this early is very dangerous to the health of a woman, because she risks early pregnancy, which can siphon away the nutrients her own body needs to develop properly. These very early marriages raise the number of pregnant women in Yemen at any given time, and expand the number of births they will go through during their life span, which could have a dramatic impact on their health. In a study conducted by Marie Stopes International in cooperation with the World Health Organization, fertility in Yemen, at 6.5 children per woman, is amongst the highest in the world. The study finds that family planning services appear to be accepted by Yemeni men and women. Such services are seen as a way of spacing births rather than limiting them, of allowing women to rest between births and to raise each child properly.
“It is important for women to understand that they have a life to live also. It is beautiful to have children, but more beautiful to raise your children in a manner where you can train them about life one at a time,” said Sameera Ali Kassim, a university graduate and mother of five who is not against having many children if you find the time to bring them up correctly. Kassim takes her children to school in the morning, and while they are there, she finds time to do her personal work at home. Even with the high fertility rate in Yemen, it is lower than it was in 1990, when women delivered 8.3 live births per lifetime, according to statistics from the U.N. Population Fund.
Since then, the U.N. has trained hundreds of sheikhs from around the country to speak about issues of reproductive health, and on the importance of family planning. While they themselves are not medically trained, the sheikhs are given accurate information about how to prevent pregnancy and the transmission of disease, as well as information on immunization campaigns, and patient’s rights. They have also been instructed to send their constituencies to clinics and to allow health workers into their homes.
Oxfam partner organizations have launched an awareness-raising campaign about the consequences of early marriage. This campaign is led by the Women’s National Committee, the Women’s Studies and Development Center, and a network of local organizations called the “Shima Network.” This network will strive to keep parents more aware of the importance of education, and the importance of getting their children to school, even if it means traveling vast distances. Because early marriage is rooted in cultural and religious traditions, it is not going to be an easy problem to solve, said Oxfam representatives. Estimates of maternal mortality in Yemen vary widely, said the UNDP.
Some sources have said that the number of maternal deaths per live births is as high as 1,400 per 100,000 live births, which is among the highest in the world; the officially accepted figure is 351. Maternal mortality and morbidity are high because of limited pre and post-natal care and also because of exceptionally high fertility, early pregnancy, and low rates of modern contraceptive use. Some people resent the intrusion of officials and aid workers into their reproductive lives. “It is our business if we want to have two or three children, or eight to nine children. These matters are personal, but people don’t seem to understand that,” said Muneef Ali al-Sawadi.
“Married couples are old enough to know what is good for them and what is not, and it is not the business of organizations to tell us what to do as if we don’t know.” Yemen has the world’s record in birth rate. Similarly, Yemen is also among the countries with the highest mortality rate among infants and pregnant women. International donors have expressed keen interest in assisting Yemen in launching awareness programs on population growth control and launching accurate censuses. However, there is still a wide gap between what is implemented on the ground in this regard and what is needed.
“The only reason I think that people in Yemen should consider not having too many children, is the economic situations they might face in the future, especially in an unstable economy like what we have in Yemen,” said Mosleh Ali al-Hajji, a father of seven whose small salary is just barely enough to feed his children.” The prices of all essential goods have tripled over the last two years, and with many children it would be hard to raise them in an environment where they are all happy and satisfied with their essential life needs, he added.
Religious leader Qazi Ismael al-Amrani mentions that there are concepts of birth spacing in the Quran, as it advises women to breastfeed for at least two years, because it is good for the health of the woman and the child. However, Islam also encourages couples to have children on the condition that it does not pose a risk to the health of the women. “It is good to give yourself time to relax and breastfeed your child for two years. Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) also encourages couples to have children,” he said.
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