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Indonesia enlists religious leaders to stop population boom

Country seeks to drop birth rate to 2.1 by 2025

Indonesia enlists religious leaders to stop population boom

Indonesia's birthrate per mother has nosedived since the 1960s but now remains static (picture: De Visu/

Abby Seiff

March 7, 2014

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In 1968, Indonesia’s Muhammadiyah issued a fatwa that would help change the course of the country. Under the edict delivered by the leaders of one of the nation’s largest Islamic groups, birth control could be considered permissible in emergency cases, or because of impoverishment. Three years later, Muhammadiyah’s fatwa grew broader – birth control for the sake of family planning was acceptable under Islamic law.

The leaders of other top Muslim organizations followed suit in the late 1960s and early 1970s and, before long, Indonesia was one of the greatest family planning success stories in the world. Fertility rates plummeted from nearly six children per mother in the 1960s to 2.6 at the turn of the century. Child mortality dropped, maternal health improved and the country prospered.

The undertaking was an exemplar of what tough, top-down government policies could do, but it was equally proof-positive of the role successful religious intervention could play.

The role of religious leaders was and is “a critical factor in the development of family planning in Indonesia,” said Dr Eddy Hasmi, Director of Collaboration on Population Education at the government’s National Population and Family Planning Board (BKKBN).

“The involvement of religious leaders in the family planning program has been very crucial,” echoed Samidjo, national program officer for advocacy at the United Nations Population Fund in Indonesia.

Their role was so crucial, he continued, that the first person then-President Suharto contacted after signing the population declaration in the late 1960s was Dr Idham Chalid, “a prominent religious leader at that time, who later on became a Minister of Religious Affairs.”

Other religions were quickly brought into the fray. An official pamphlet, Views of Religions on Family Planning, was published by the government in 1968 “to document the general acceptance of principles of family planning by four of the five officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholic Christianity, and Balinese Hinduism,” wrote Terence H Hull in The World Bank’s The Global Family Planning Revolution.

The acceptance remained imperfect – through the decades there have been clashes over the types of permitted birth control and the acceptable reasons for use – but its impact could not be understated.

“The role of religious leaders is mainly in [imparting] the information, education and communication parts to their followers about the benefits of family planning. Moreover some religious organizations such as Fatayat or Muslimat of Nahdlatul Ulama or Muhammadiyah, or Catholic and Christian organizations also provide family planning services through their health clinic or hospital,” said Dr Hasmi.

But over the past decade, improvements have stalled. After dipping to 2.6 children per women in 2002, the fertility rate has failed to fall any further. In the mid-2000s, the government set a goal of a 2.1 fertility rate by 2014. That, too, has missed the mark.

Many observers, Dr Hasmi included, have fingered the nation’s large-scale and rapid decentralization process as the primary culprit for stagnant fertility rates.

“Health care funding is now primarily based on local government rather than the national government. The result is that the amount of money devoted to heath care varies across the country, and can be poorer in quality even while accessible by a broader population,” said Jeremy Menchik, an assistant professor at Boston University who has carried out extensive research into the role of Islamic law in Indonesia’s family planning scheme.

To combat the problem, the government has redoubled its efforts – setting 2025 as the new goal for a 2.1 fertility rate, and sinking vast resources into the training of doctors and midwives.

But some healthcare professionals fear such efforts may yet fall short. 

“From [the] supply side [there is] not effective training for providers although the government of Indonesia invested lot of money. There are some issues: inadequate training tools, lack of follow up, mistargeted training, no adequate counseling and poor supply chain distribution of contraceptives,” said Hari Fitri Putjuk, Country Representative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Communication Programs.

From a religious perspective, meanwhile, there are concerns over “some conservative religious beliefs, which oppose family planning,” said Putjuk.

Menchik, for his part, pointed out that the more extremist Islamist groups “have not generally mobilized around opposition to birth control,” and the government is keen to ensure that remains the case.

One of the chief roles played by religious leaders today, said Dr. Hasmi, is to “enlighten their followers about family planning through intellectual exercise with the study of family planning from religion’s view. This is important to counter the fundamental groups that object to the family planning program.”

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