GIZA, Egypt - In her crowded neighborhood on the west bank of the Nile River, her friends call her “the mother of children.”
At 32, Rana Ragab already has five kids - and just found out she is pregnant with her sixth. She and her husband, a butcher, are thrilled.
“He keeps telling everyone he sees: ‘Rana is pregnant!’” she said. “Clients are calling for orders and he tells them, ‘My wife is pregnant!’”
The Egyptian government, though, sees families their size as a grave threat to the country - and has spent millions of dollars over the past several years trying to convince parents to have fewer children.
In public speeches, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has repeatedly scolded families for having more than two children, calling the population crisis a national security issue that has hindered progress on development goals.
The state’s longtime anxiety over its birthrate is shared by many other countries in Africa, where natural resources and social services are struggling to keep pace with fast-growing populations. Nigeria has more than twice as many people as Egypt. The population of Ethiopia - locked in a longtime fight with Egypt over access to the Nile - has reached 121 million. More than one billion people already live in Africa. By 2050, the populations of at least 26 African countries are expected to double.
The government in Cairo says the issue is more urgent than ever, as rising temperatures increasingly threaten the country’s food and water supplies - topics that will be near the top of the agenda during the U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, that begins Sunday in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
As the host of COP27, Egypt has vowed to champion African concerns, which include how rapid population growth may heighten countries’ vulnerability to climate change. Africa is already severely impacted by climate change despite being responsible for only around 3 percent of global CO2 emissions.
In Egypt, birth and fertility rates are gradually declining - just not fast enough. For the country to create enough jobs and improve national living standards, and to avoid resource shortages, it would need to reduce its yearly births from more than 2 million last year to around 400,000, the government has said. But more than 1 million babies were born in the last seven months alone - bringing the total population to 104 million, a nearly fivefold increase since the country won independence in the 1950s.
The effects of Egypt’s soaring population are felt in its traffic jams and crowded malls, its overflowing classrooms and packed apartment buildings. But residents of urban areas remain somewhat sheltered from the environmental stresses on rural communities and agriculture, which is vital to the country’s economy.
This arid country is on the front lines of climate change - as temperatures continue to rise, Egypt will be increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise, water shortages, and extreme weather, experts predict, including heat waves and dust storms.
Almost everyone in Egypt lives on one relatively small strip of fertile land along the Nile. Farmers that have long relied on the river are now struggling to adapt as water levels have dwindled. The country “is nearing ‘absolute water scarcity,’” according to a recent report published by UNICEF and the American University in Cairo. The government has sought to restrict the amount of farmland that is used for growing water-intensive crops such as bananas.
The decision by Ragab and her husband to have a large family underscores how tradition and personal freedoms complicate any efforts by the government to manage population growth. The state’s wishes weren’t a factor in the family’s choice, she said.
“I understand why the government might say one or two kids, because of the financial responsibility,” said her husband, Mahmoud Shawky. “Some people have two children and they eat meat once a month. This is not the case for us.”
Shawky makes enough from his butcher shop to provide for the family. Their apartment is modest but they use spare money to fund the children’s athletic lessons and trips to the coast.
“We have to be able to take care of our children,” he said. “I am very opposed to people having kids without the means.”
In rural parts of the country, though, the decision to have a large family is often more complicated. Many farming families have more children because they need help in the fields, said Sahar Khamis, an expert on Arab media at the University of Maryland.
For decades, government messaging on family planning has “not been useful at all” and has at times even been counterproductive, she said. One advertisement that showed two parents with a boy and a girl, urging a smaller family for a better life, “did not generate any positive effect and was not even understood by some of the audience,” she said, with some families interpreting it as an encouragement to keep trying until they have children of both genders.
In agricultural areas, the “policy of just having two children is totally out of touch,” Khamis said. When the government aggressively pushes for families to have fewer children, it can come off as “simply using the people as a scapegoat for the government’s shortcomings on economic growth.”
Still, the U.N. Population Fund, which supports mobile clinics that travel to rural areas of the country to educate women on contraceptives, said there has been a notable increase in their use in recent years.
According to Egypt’s 2021 family health survey, around 65 percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 were using modern family planning - an increase of 8 percentage points from 2014. Around 63 percent of those using contraceptives said they obtained them from government-run facilities.
Although most of Ragab’s friends use them, she “was never convinced.”
She briefly used an IUD but had it removed after just a few months.
“I feel like they’re rejecting God’s fate. If I’m fated to, I’ll have the child,” she said.
Hala Elsaid, Egypt’s minister for planning and economic development, said in an interview earlier this year that the government still sees its large population as “a major asset.”
“But we want each child that comes to this world [to have] a good chance of education [and] good medical treatment,” she said.
In a speech last year, President Sissi took a tougher tone: Parents with more than two children, he said, “overwhelm yourself and the state.”
But Ragab sees her children only as a source of joy.
Late last month, she sent a Washington Post reporter a photo of her pregnancy test - two pink lines on the small white screen. “I have good news for you. I took a test and am pregnant!” she said in a voice note.
For her husband it was “as if it was the first time we got pregnant,” she said.
He told her he is praying for twins.
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