x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Give women incentives to have bigger families, Government urged

Decline in birth rate raises concerns over demographic impact.

The Emirati birth rate has almost halved in recent years, prompting calls for Emirati women to be given incentives to have larger families. Fertility rates have been falling in the UAE for three decades, as is confirmed by new figures from the World Health Organisation. The latest edition of the WHO's World Health Statistics shows that between 1990 and 2007 the number of children born per woman in the UAE fell from 4.4 to 2.3. Although the figures can be attributed in part to a rise in female expatriate residents of the UAE, one expert said the drop was reflective of wider changes in Emirati society.

Dr Fatma al Sayegh, a professor of UAE and Gulf history at UAE University in Al Ain, said the decline was to be expected, given the improved education, career ambitions and later marriage age of Emirati women. However, she said the country's "demographic problem" meant it was "a national necessity" that birth rates be increased. "The decline in the number of nationals will impact on the whole of society," she said. "We want [women] to work but we want them at the same time to have more children."

Dr al Sayegh praised government efforts to encourage Emiratis to marry other Emiratis, including initiatives such as state-funded mass weddings. But she said maternity leave payments needed to be increased and childcare facilities at work should be improved. The WHO statistics are not the first to show a steep decrease in the birth rate. Figures released by the UN earlier this year indicated that the decline in the Emirates was the sixth-fastest in the world.

Such is the concern over the erosion in national identity, in part as a result of Emiratis becoming a shrinking minority in their own country, that Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, designated 2008 "the Year of National Identity". According to Dr Rima al Sabban, a sociologist, the drop in the birth rate in the UAE has been "huge". Some of it, she said, could be accounted for by the influx of expatriates. In addition, Dr al Sabban said: "There seems to be a movement, especially among the younger generation, where they believe they don't want to have as many children as their mothers. This change of perception needs to be addressed at a national level."

Among initiatives she suggests are increased financial support for women with children. The dropping birth rate is a symptom of good news; analysts say rapid reductions in fertility rates are indicative of successful social policies. dbardsley@thenational.ae relass@thenational.ae