IN its fight against overpopulation, Zimbabwe has enlisted a soap opera as an ally. A radio show named "You Reap What You Sow" lampoons male resistance to family planning via the problems of Jonas, a poor villager and his two wives and 15 children.
The show is part of an innovative approach to family planning that has tripled the country's use of contraception in recent years. It has also helped earn Zimbabwe status as a "pick" among the "population picks and pans" of a family-planning advocacy group, which selected Zimbabwe as one of the five nations that made the most progress last year toward controlling growth.
Other picks recognized by Population Action International (PAI) include Indonesia, Bangladesh, Iran, and Peru.
"These five countries offer proof that family-planning services can be provided - and will be used - in very diverse social, economic, and cultural settings," PAI concludes.
The governments among these winners are very different. If a theme unites them, it is that they are countries where enough change is occurring to give people hope. With the exception of Bangladesh, they are not the poorest of the poor. "In order for women to try to take charge of their reproductive lives they need to have a sense they have a future to plan for," says Sharon Camp, PAI senior vice president.
Zimbabwe's designation is important because it shows that African nations in particular can slow their explosive population growth. Average family size in the country has fallen to about 5.7 children, which looks high to Western eyes but is substantially below the seven-child average for sub-Saharan Africa.
Indonesia's inclusion shows that progress can occur in already-huge countries. The fourth most populous nation on earth, Indonesia has used local community mobilization to increase contraceptive use fivefold in the last 20 years and decrease average family size to three children.
In Bangladesh, the doubling of contraceptive use over the last 10 years is something of "an unexpected achievement," given the country's poverty, according to PAI. But highly subsidized contraceptive sales, funded largely by foreign aid, have made the difference.
Even Iran, which remains a repressive nation for women in many ways, has begun to recognize the need for government support for family planning. This "may be one of the country's best kept secrets," according to PAI. Family planning funds have been doubled, and the Iranian government now actively encourages smaller families.
And Peru's average family size has fallen drastically since 1978, from 5.3 children to 3.5. In 1990, President Alberto Fujimori created a plan for a National Population Program, including free distribution of contraceptives.
Population Action International's choices of the nations noteworthy for their lack of progress include Russia, Pakistan, Poland, Iraq, and Ireland.
The group was particularly critical of Russia and Poland, two developed countries where access to family-planning methods has been sharply curtailed in recent months. In Russia, economic chaos has halted domestic production of latex-based birth-control devices; while in Poland, the Roman Catholic Church is urging stricter curbs on abortion and sex education.