GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — While Islam calls for believers to bear many children and prohibits the use of birth control, new Palestinian generations are defying tradition and leaning toward limiting the number of children they have.
As Arabs, Palestinians are among the keenest on maintaining their mores and traditions as well as the most committed to the teachings of Islam. Religious scholars historically called on people to procreate with abandon, and their calls were widely endorsed by men and women alike, in their quest to gain — in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — a demographic advantage in the Palestinian territories.
The newer generations, however, which have had to contend with successive economic and political crises, decided to forego this call to procreate. Reasons for this, according to sociologist Assaad Kuhail, include increased awareness and their slim chances of finding job security as well as the difficulties they have faced in trying to live a dignified and prosperous life.
“Life is completely different from the one lived by our fathers and grandfathers. We have lost the motivation to have many children. On the contrary, the new generation now prefers to limit the number of children they have, as life has become more difficult and is only getting harder with time,” Kuhail said in an interview with Al-Monitor.
Iyad Abu al-Rous, 28, married almost four years ago. He said that, with the help of God, he now has two children and intends to have a third, after which he will stop trying for more — because of many considerations that go back to his family’s lifestyle and the desire to guarantee that his children are able to live happily.
“My father had me and eight other children. My grandfather had about the same number of children as well. But the considerations and reasons that drive people to heavily procreate differ from one generation to the next. My grandfather was a farmer with a lot of land. He needed to have many children who would help him tend his fields. He did not worry about their futures or educational expenses, because his children would all work as farmers, plow and live on his land,” Abu al-Rous, who lives in a rented house, told Al-Monitor.
The young man, who works as a government employee, explained to Al-Monitor that the current generation's attitudes have changed. “This is particularly in light of increasing population density, growing poverty, unemployment, scarcity of jobs, swelling numbers of university graduates and rising cost of living,” he said to Al-Monitor, on the condition of anonymity.
Kuhail added, “The new generation now takes into consideration various economic and cultural factors before deciding to have children. The idea of limiting childbearing has therefore now garnered more supporters than before.”
“The rate of poverty and unemployment have become a concern that members of the new generation must contend with, as they try to provide their children with a decent life that does not expose them to the risks of begging on the streets, particularly in light of the rising number of university graduates who continue to unsuccessfully look for employment,” the sociologist continued.
The Gaza Strip is home to 1.8 million people, 120,000 of whom are unemployed with university degrees — which the Gaza labor market is unable to assimilate, according to data recently published by the Gaza Ministry of Labor.
Unemployment rates on Palestinian territories have risen by 3.15% between 2011 and 2012, to reach 23% of the population. The situation is further exacerbated in the Gaza Strip, where, according to the International Labor Organization, the unemployment rate nears 31%.
Kuhail pointed out that despite the modern view toward reproduction conflicting with the calls by religious scholars to push people in having more children, many young people are afraid that they might be unable to provide their children with a decent life, forcing them to beg in the future.
“The more Palestinians become aware and rational, the less they will procreate, as they pursue a level of education and knowledge that suits them and increases their chances of having a better life,” he added.
Al-Amal Association for Family Development's Director Mushira al-Khawaja, concurred with Kuhail. “Past generations liked to have many children regardless of the prevailing circumstances. Current generations, however, now seek to limit the number of children they have to four or maybe five at the most,” she told Al-Monitor.
Khawaja clarified that the new generation’s efforts to limit their progeny is unrelated to the act of women surgically becoming infertile, but revolves around an organizational process that the couple set forth when they first get married. This process might change if their financial condition or economic situation improved.
Abu al-Rous’ views echo a rising social tendency that is reflected in the constantly declining birthrates within the Palestinian territories, as indicated by the results of the 2010 Palestinian Family Survey. It noted a decrease in the overall fertility rate at 4.4 births per woman in the period 2008-2009, as opposed to 6.0 births per woman in 1997.
In Gaza, this rate was 5.2 births in the period 2008-2009, compared to 6.9 births in 1997. Population projections also indicated that the overall birthrate in Palestine will drop from 32.6 births per 1,000 individuals in 2013 to 31.9 births in 2015.
According to the same survey, data for 2012 indicate that the household size in Palestine had shrunk when compared to 1997, whereby the average family size dropped from 6.4 members in 1997 to 5.5 members in 2012.
It should be noted that the population density is high in Palestine, particularly in the Gaza Strip. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the mean population density in 2013 was 734 persons per square kilometer (0.6 square miles): 481 persons per square kilometer in the West Bank and 4,661 persons per square kilometer in the Gaza Strip.
While Israelis continue to worry about a “demographic time bomb,” Palestinians, too, are increasingly opting to have less children given the current dire circumstances caused primarily by the occupation.
Rasha Abou Jalal is a writer and freelance journalist from Gaza specializing in the political news, humanitarian and social issues linked to current events.