“Our main diet is fish,” says Kamal Ahmed, a fisherman from Ibrahim Haidery in Karachi. “So many children are an outcome of that,” he chuckles. Ahmed got married some 15 years back and has seven children, expecting the eighth. “The new guest will arrive within a few months.”
These fishermen of one of the world’s largest cities, Karachi, are open to talking about anything but contraception. Having a large family is something they see as normal; they know no other way.
Settled in Machhar Colony –one of the biggest slums of South Asia – and Ibrahim Hydery, a majority of the fishermen living here are of Bengali descent, and many are still not registered citizens of Pakistan. Pathans and Kutchis also live here in big numbers. Smelling of fish and poverty, the colony is ironically situated next to Karachi’s port which provides most of the economic support to the country’s financial hub.
On average, every couple here has at least six children, and earns only Rs10,000 a month in good fishing season. The mouths, then, are too many to feed.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, the birth rate per year in less developed countries is 129,547,000 as compared to 13,794,000 in more developed countries. Thus, in the world’s least resourceful and most vulnerable communities, the means are lesser, and a lack of population planning has a lot to do with it.
“I am 40-years-old but I have never met a person who could brief me about family planning,” Ahmed complains. In this slum, there is no public hospital. The one primary health care facility is open only in the mornings and that is when the men are at sea. They never get to meet the health care providers.
Noor-ul-Qadir Bengali aka Lala says, “It’s a very personal issue. The decision is in the man’s hand and I don’t think our females can seek advice nor make a decision regarding it,” he explained.
“I have never met anyone who could inform me about the benefits of small family or how to keep it small,” says Abdul Raheem Bengali. Raheem moved to this area some 30 years back and has nine children.
Abdul Sattar, another resident, says he didn’t know the impact of having a large family in his youth. He has eight children. “Someone should educate me on how to keep the family size in limits,” he says, laughing along with his married friends.
“Its female issue,” one of his friends, Muhammad, comments.
“You are talking about ‘beds’; no one will talk about it,” another friend of Sattar, Sultan adds. “People know the ‘Chhota Khandan, Zindagi Aasan’ (small family, easier life) slogan, but they don’t know how to make it possible.”
“There is no health facility in Machhar Colony,” confirms senior director of medical and health services at Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, Dr Salma Kausar Ali.
Birth control pills and injections are used by very few residents. Easy and free availability of contraceptives is the deciding factor for them.
“The government never focused its family planning efforts on us as it knows we can’t keep our family small,” says Sultan, referring to the culture of big families in the community.
Population Welfare Department Sindh DG Bashir Ahmed Mangi says his department has targeted all communities equally. “If they [fishermen] can afford the expenses of more children, it is their choice, but not at the cost of the health of mothers and newborns,” he maintained.
“A fisherman doesn’t care about anything when he returns after days at sea,” says Aami, a resident of Rehri Goth. “His relaxation is his wife; that is why the family keeps getting larger and larger,” she laughs.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2015.