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Bangladeshi clerics back family planners

An unlikely partnership emerges in the world's ninth most populous country

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Family planner Tayyaba Khatoon gathers women around her in Ratua Khali, a shantytown on the outskirts of Dhaka, explaining the need for smaller families and the mechanics of birth control.

The women look at a cleric for confirmation of Ms. Khatoon's advice. He nods, bestowing religious permission, a crucial endorsement in this conservative Muslim country bordering India and Burma.

Since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, the population of Bangladesh has almost doubled to 140 million people, making it the world's ninth most populous country.

But a quiet revolution is under way as an unlikely combination of feminist population planners and the country's orthodox clergy team up to combat Bangladesh's burgeoning population.

"We have involved religious leaders in the population control program and it has shown its positive results in the last few years, but we need to bring the birth rate down further," says Bangladesh Foreign Minister Murshid Khan.

Family planners say Bangladesh's population growth rate stands at a remarkable 1.8 percent. In 1980, the rate was 4.2. The fertility rate today is 3.3 children per woman, as opposed to 6.3 in 1980.

Getting religious leaders on board was crucial to curbing the birthrate.

'Act of Satan'

During the early 1990s, influential clerics across the country decreed that family planning was an "act of Satan," and those who practiced it would "go to hell." Family planners were physically assaulted and their offices attacked. Men and women using contraception would be treated as social outcasts.

"A local cleric refused to offer funeral prayers when a village woman who had opted for sterilization died," says Shahid Hossain, deputy director of the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh (FPAB).

"The cleric was standing on the street and calling the woman a sinner. So we had to offer the funeral prayers and delivered emotional speeches telling villagers that Islam is not against family planning," he recalls.

"We realized that we needed the support of mullahs if we wanted to combat the monster of population growth haunting Bangladesh," Mr. Hossain says.

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