Before 1980 Algeria lacked an official birth control program, in contrast to other Arab countries, nearly all of which had some kind of family planning program or a policy of limiting population. To a large extent, this situation reflected the conviction that Algeria was not overpopulated, given the vast empty expanse of the Sahara and the High Plateaus and the scattered population clusters even in the Tell. There was also a desire to make up the alleged 1.5 million population loss in the War of Independence and the conviction of many parents that their well-being lay in producing as many children as possible, a common view held by peasants. Despite an employment problem arising from overpopulation, Boumediene favored economic growth over birth control as the solution to overpopulation and unemployment. His policy received the blessing of the Islamic religious establishment.
At 1980 growth rates, Algeria's population would have risen from 18.3 million to more than 35 million by the year 2000. Faced with a demographic explosion that threatened to inhibit further social and economic development, if not obliterate what had been achieved, the Bendjedid government reversed directions and devised a cautious family planning policy that took into account Islamic sensitivities. The new program referred to "birth spacing" rather than "birth control" and emphasized the improvement in the health of the mother and children and the well-being of the family that would occur if births were spaced and families were smaller. The goal was voluntary participation on the part of women of childbearing age. The program also aimed at creating the infrastructure within the Ministry of Public Health that would enable it to provide birth control services, educate the population about family planning, and conduct research on the relationship between population growth and economic development.
To implement the program, Maternal and Infant Protection Centers (PMICS) were established to dispense advice and contraceptives. In 1980 there were about 260 centers. An educational campaign was also launched, using television, billboards, and handbills to point out the consequences of unrestrained demographic growth and to advertise the services of the PMICS. A major effort was made to reconcile family planning with the dictates of religion. Religious scholars found birth spacing and the use of contraceptives compatible with Islam as long as participation was voluntary and practices such as abortion and sterilization were proscribed.
By the mid-1980s, family planning had begun to meet with some success. The number of PMICS had risen to 300, and the demand for information about the program reportedly outstripped supply in some areas. It was estimated that about 10 percent of the population of childbearing age was using some form of contraception, and the government was increasing its publicity to encourage still greater participation.
In 1986 the government created the National Committee on Population. Its charter promoted a balance between social and economic development needs on the one hand, and population growth on the other. Three years later, in 1989, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) launched a US$8 million program to support maternal and child health care, help create a center for the production of oral contraceptives, and develop an effective education system to inform the general population on the use of contraceptives. The UNFPA program also supported demographic research and advised the government on population strategies and policies. In 1989 it was estimated that 35 percent of Algerian women of childbearing age used some form of contraception. This percentage would account in part for the sharp drop in population growth from 3.1 percent in the mid-1980s to 2.8 percent in 1990.
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