Bill to Encourage Childbirth and Marriage Threatens to Increase Discrimination against Women in Iran
A bill to encourage childbirth and marriage among young people that has been deliberated in the Majles in recent months is arousing an incisive public discourse. The initiative for a bill to raise the birth rate came in the wake of the Supreme Leader’s instruction in the summer of 2012 to review the family planning policy that has been in effect in Iran since the late 1980s, with the intention of increasing the population and curbing the aging process of Iranian society. Another goal of the proposed law is to address the crisis that has befallen the institution of marriage in Iran in recent years. This crisis is reflected in a significant rise in average age of marriage, coupled with an increase in the divorce rate, mainly among young people.
The bill includes 50 sections detailing a series of measures for lowering the age of marriage, reducing the divorce rate and increasing the birth rate. The public discourse that has developed around the bill reflects agreement in principle on the need to raise Iran’s birth rate, along with criticism regarding its anticipated effects. The main contention of the law’s critics is that it is liable to increase discrimination against women in the labor market, particularly in light of a section giving priority to the employment of married men and men in general over women, especially single women.
Additional arguments raised by critics of the bill pertain to its high budgetary cost, questionable effectiveness and disregard for the main hardships that contribute to the postponement of marriage and the decreasing birth rate among young people.
Even if the law is approved in its current format, it is highly doubtful that it will manage to curb the continuing rise in the average age of marriage and the decline in the birth rate, both of which stem mainly from the serious social and economic hardships facing Iran’s younger generation.
A bill to boost the birth rate and encourage marriage among Iran’s young people has aroused an incisive public discourse in recent months. The bill, known as the “overall plan for the population and advancement of the family,” which is now being deliberated in the Majles, is designed to achieve two main goals: promoting childbirth and marriage among young people. The original bill, which may undergo changes during the legislative process, has 50 sections.
The initiative for a bill to increase the birth rate came in the wake of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s instruction in the summer of 2012 to review the family planning policy that has been in effect in Iran since the late 1980s, with the intention of increasing the population and curbing the aging process of Iranian society.
Since the Islamic revolution, Iran’s family planning policy has undergone far-reaching changes. After the revolution, the family planning program formally introduced in Iran in the summer of 1967 was suspended. The program’s goal was to reduce the rate of natural increase in the population. In the second half of the 1980s, recognition of economic and social implications of uncontrolled population growth increased significantly, with such growth being perceived as an impediment to economic growth and development. In December 1989, a family planning program was adopted, designed to limit the number of pregnancies and the number of children per family. The Leader’s instruction resulted in the abandonment of the family planning policy after nearly 20 years and to a practical examination of ways to increase Iran’s population.
Another goal of the proposed law is to address the crisis that has befallen the institution of marriage in the Islamic Republic in recent years. This crisis is reflected in a significant increase in the average age of marriage and an increase in the divorce rate among Iranian couples.
Studies conducted in recent years indicate that in the past decade there has been an increase of nearly 30% in the average age of marriage in the country. The increase in marriage age is mainly a result of social and economic factors, especially the high unemployment rate and high cost of housing. Along with the rise in the average age of marriage, there has also been a significant increase in the divorce rate among Iranian couples, especially in the country’s major urban centers.
The marriage crisis is giving rise to concern among Iran’s politicians and senior clerics. In their eyes, this crisis is an additional expression of the negative influence of Western culture on Iranian society, especially the younger generation, and on the Islamic values on which the Islamic Republic is based.
As part of the policy of encouraging marriage, a number of proposals to impose restrictions on young singles have been made in recent years. In April 2008, Mohammad-Hossein Jahanbakhsh, governor of the province of North Khorasan, suggested prohibiting singles from holding government positions and even threatened to dismiss young people holding administrative positions in the province who do not marry within a short time.
Details of the bill
Thebill contains a preamble and five main chapters:a chapter on the various definitions relevant to the proposed law, a chapter on ways to lower the age of marriage, a chapter on ways to lower the divorce rate, a chapter on ways to encourage childbirth and a chapter on family fertility.
The preamble to the bill states that if the current birth rate continues, this could lead to negative population growth within 20 years.The bill also states that in view of demographic trends in Iran, a window of opportunity opened in 2006 enabling economic development based on the country’s young population.This window is expected to continue for the next four decades and should be taken advantage of by encouraging young people in the areas of marriage, employment and housing.
It is evident from the bill that the current birth policy strives to attain a fertility rate of 2.5 children per family by 2025 (compared to 2.1 children per family today).Initiators of the law emphasize that they strive to ensure population growth not only quantitatively but also qualitatively in terms of the government’s ability to provide the population with health services, housing, welfare, education and employment. The bill refers to the “appropriate age for marriage” for men and women and states that the “appropriate age for marriage” will be defined as between 20 and 25 for men and between 18 and 22 for women.
The second chapter of the bill details measures designed to lower the marriage age.These measures include, among other things, formulating educational and informational programs to encourage marriage at the appropriate age; encouraging the employment of women in positions that are in line with the “role of women in the family”; allocating at least 15% of research budgets at research institutions for studies related to family and childbirth; setting up dormitories at institutions of higher education for married male students and for female students with children; giving priority in employment in the government and private sectors to men with children, followed by married men without children and then women with children; giving priority in employment to married workers over single workers; imposing severe restrictions on hiring singles at scientific councils in universities, institutions of higher education, research institutions and teaching positions in schools; providing special government assistance to married soldiers and to married students; providing concessions and bank loans to newly married couples; and providing housing assistance to homeless married couples, with priority being given to couples with children.
The third chapter of the bill discusses measures for lowering the divorce rate.These measures include, among other things, stepping up the conditions for granting permits to employees of the judiciary who are authorized to hear family disputes; increasing involvement by the National Welfare Organization, the Basij Organization and the National Youth Organization in the provision of consultancy services for resolving family disputes in order to prevent divorce; providing benefits to lawyers and judges who manage to resolve family disputes amicably and without divorce; broadcasting programs on the state media and formulating curricula that include messages that promote marriage and warn against the serious implications and hardships caused by divorce.
The fourth chapter of the bill discusses measures to encourage childbirth.These measures include, among other things, extending maternity leave to nine months; concessions in working hours for mothers with children under the age of one year; restrictions on dismissal of mothers after childbirth; short 10-day paternity leave for fathers; concessions for female students after childbirth and for those with children up to the age of 5; promoting the option of working from home for working mothers; insurance benefits and concessions for working mothers, including mothers who are housewives; free medical insurance for pregnant women and women with children up to the age of 5 who lack such insurance; tax breaks for parents; benefits for housing loans for families with three or more children under the age of 20; and increasing child allowances beginning with the third child.
The fifth and final chapter of the bill discusses measures for encouraging family fertility.These measures include, among other things, public informational programs for young couples with the aim of encouraging them to have children during the first two years of marriage; medical training at medical centers designed to encourage fertility, to treat infertility and various genetic problems, to prevent unnecessary cesarean sections, etc; formulating programs at the Ministry of Health for promoting planned pregnancy; increasing the monitoring of high-risk pregnancies; and establishing educational settings for young children in the framework of the local authorities.
The bill states that a Higher Population Council will be established and will be responsible for formulating the overall policy and for coordination between the various entities in all matters related to the family and reproductive policy.The council will be headed by the president and will include representatives of the Supreme Leader’s Office, the President’s Office, the judiciary, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, relevant government ministries, the Broadcasting Authority and the Majles (http://www.tasnimnews.com/Home/Single/78813).
Criticism of the bill
The bill has given rise to a lively public discourse in recent months. Although the discourse reflects agreement in principle on the need to encourage childbirth in Iran, critics of the bill, especially among female women’s rights activists, have expressed concern that implementation of the bill would increase the discrimination against women in Iran today. Additional arguments raised by critics of the bill pertain to its high budgetary cost, questionable effectiveness and insufficient attention to the most important factors promoting the postponement of marriage and contributing to the decline in the birth rate.
The ISNA news agency recently initiated several meetings with female women’s rights activists to discuss the bill and its implications. At these meetings, female human rights activist Azar Mansouri raised her main reservations regarding the proposed law. First, she claims that it is a very expensive bill and the necessary budget for its implementation cannot be guaranteed, because the government is already coping with a severe budgetary deficit.
Second, the bill does not address the main social and economic problems that prevent many young people from marrying and having children. Mansouri noted that the main reason why young people do not have children is not rooted in limitations or problems pertaining to their children’s childhood but rather in their concerns about their children’s uncertain future in view of the economic crisis.
Third, it is an inefficient bill that ignores the social, cultural and technological changes that have taken place in Iran in the past 20 years. According to Mansouri, the initiators of the bill make suggestions that managed to increase the birth rate in the 1980s and 1990s, but one cannot compare Iranian society at that time to Iranian society today in terms of advances in the areas of technology and communications.
Mansouri – like other female women’s rights activists – directed her harshest criticism against the bill at discrimination against women in the labor market that some sections of the proposed law are liable to cause, particularly Section 9, which gives priority to the employment of married men and men in general over the employment of women in general and single women in particular.
According to its critics, the law would also encourage Iranian employers to prefer men over women, in part because the law provides significant concessions for working women during pregnancy and after childbirth. Critics of the law argue that it is liable to further exacerbate the unemployment problem among women, especially educated women who already have difficulty finding many job opportunities.
According to Mansouri, the section that encourages the employment of women in positions that allow them to fulfill their “family role” would lead to increased gender discrimination at institutions of higher education and would preserve the current situation where women are employed mainly as teachers, doctors and nurses.
Mansouri also addressed the proposed concessions for women with children in terms of working hours and claimed that they are not applicable in the private sector, where most Iranian women are employed.
In conclusion, Mansouri noted that the bill would not lead to population growth. Instead, it would exacerbate the current social problems and discrimination against women. The proposed law would reduce employment opportunities for educated women and lead to the emigration of educated women specializing in many fields (http://www.isna.ir/fa/news/92072917651).
Sociologist Shahla Kazemipour also criticized the bill in an interview to the ILNA news agency. She claimed that it is a very expensive bill whose effect will be limited. She claimed that the bill fails to address major economic and social problems facing Iranian society, particularly poverty and unemployment, which are a major cause of problems that the law is attempting to deal with.
Kazemipour came out strongly against Section 9 of the bill, arguing that it will create discrimination against women, lead to the removal of many educated women from the labor market and reduce the employment options available to women. This discrimination, she said, runs counter to the preamble to the bill, which states that the law is designed to encourage young people to take advantage of the demographic window of opportunity for economic development. Kazemipour also claimed that some of the sections detailed in the bill would result in many employers not wanting to hire women or encouraging women to take early retirement for no reason, in order to avoid making pension and insurance contributions for working women on the terms prescribed in the bill.
Kazemipour went on to discuss ways of coping with the phenomenon of divorce proposed in the law and claimed that the sections of the law dealing with this disregard studies indicating the need to prevent serious family disputes from the outset, because it is very hard to prevent divorce after such conflicts have already broken out between spouses. She warned that the law will lead to many single women falling below the poverty line, because it only addresses the need to insure married women.
She noted that it is puzzling that the bill seeks to encourage studies on population and family planning although many studies that had been conducted on these topics were ignored by the bill’s initiators when they formulated it. In conclusion, Kazemipour stated that although the law does include suggestions that might improve the welfare of married couples, its effect in attaining its main goals will be very limited. She says that recent studies on the decline in the birth rate, the increase in the average age of marriage and the rise in the divorce rate clearly indicate that social, economic and cultural problems are the cause of these phenomena and the proposed law does not provide a solution to these problems. It is an expensive law whose implementation is expected to be problematic and harmful. An appropriate way of dealing with birth rate and marriage problems is through government programs that will strengthen Iran’s economic, social and cultural infrastructure (http://ilna.ir/news/news.cfm?id=108911).
See in this context: Raz Zimmt, “Marriage Out, Divorce In: the Escalation of the Marriage Crisis in Iran” Iran Pulse, Vol. 38, February 21, 2010, Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University, http://humanities.tau.ac.il/iranian/en/previous-reviews/10-iran-pulse-en/82-38