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it’s time to start asking better questions about the marriage and fertility “crisis”

Iran is taking an unconventional approach to stem falling marriage rates. Sports and youth minister, Mohammad Abassi announced that a spouse-finding website may soon be authorised in the Islamic country.

Currently, online sites are heavily censored and access to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are limited (though a reported 17 million Iranians are using Facebook). But in light of dropping marriage rates, the government may make an exception, the Guardian reported last week.

Fewer people marrying, more people getting divorced, and falling fertility rates are prompting the country to tweak its strict Internet crackdown at the beginning of the year. In January the government issued a requirement that all Internet café owners check ID and record the information of all users – including their home address and phone number.

‘To tackle this problem, we have to find new ways and use all our opportunities to promote a long-lasting and easy marriage,’ he said.

Apparently, that also includes scrapping all birth control programs and publicly berating family planning initiatives, as supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did – before suggesting Iran’s population needed to rise to 200 million.

Before the site receives authorisation, it will need to win the approval of cultural ministry.

The state of Iran’s marriage rate and population has been a concern of the government’s for some time now. In 2010 president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad said girls should be getting married as young as 16 (though other media outlets quoted him as saying 17 or 18).

Iran is not alone in its marriage woes. Also last week, Canada’s census revealed fewer and fewer Canadians are choosing to get married, and many of those who do, don’t have children. The United States is also experiencing birthrates lower than France’s historical low of 1.3, reported the Economist this summer. Germany now has the lowest birthrate on the continent at 1.36.

Declining birth rates in developed countries are not a new concern for affected countries. Journalists have been examining the low fertility rates in Europe since 2006. Forbes argued in May this year that the continent’s economic problems stem from ‘what is – or is not –happening in the bedroom’.

But, says Patrizia Albanese, a sociology professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, the handwringing and panic over low marriage rates and postponed parenthood ignores a crucial question:

‘Why do we frame it as a problem? [People aren’t] rejecting family. They’re not rejecting children. They’re not rejecting co-habitation or other forms of unions,” she says.

‘They’re choosing not to marry.’

The positives not being addressed: Fewer people being pressured into marriage, fewer divorces, and more opportunities for young people (especially women) who postpone marriage to pursue other paths.

Albanese says there is a difference between turning away from one another and turning away from the institution of marriage – the latter is what has been seen around the world. Quebec, for example, has large numbers of common-law spouses and families. And the declining fertility rate may have nothing at all to do with this.

‘There could be a separate reason for both,’ she says.

Albanese cites women’s desire to pursue post-secondary education, the availability of reproductive technology, and the recognition that states aren’t supporting families, as possible reasons for the drop in marriage rates. She also says women making educated decisions about when they choose to marry are definitely positive.

‘This is what countries like Iran are terrified of. Citizens thinking.’

The battle between governments and their citizens, when it comes to families and fertility rates is as much about money as it is maintaining family oriented values (as in many religious societies). Where a population equals workforce, and productivity equals prosperity, aging populations, and childfree populations with stagnant immigration means young people forgoing or postponing the “traditional” career-marriage-parenthood path has great implications for their respective countries.

The still struggling economy certainly has something to do with it. Families may be becoming a luxury people just can’t afford. Young Canadian couples are certainly enjoying the benefits of a childfree existence, so much so that National Post journalist Joe O’Conner called them ‘selfish’ in a recent column.  Furthermore, says Albanese, smarter more educated populations mean people are making wiser choices about marriage and family.

However, convincing the population to get married and get busy might take more than authorising online dating sites.

‘Do states look for cheap solutions that are superficial? Of course. Do cheap solutions that are superficial actually work? No.’ says Albanese, who has conducted research on family-oriented policies around the world.

‘We shouldn’t waste our time working on those strictly pro-natalist policies that don’t address how to live life in a balanced way.’

Other countries have implemented monetary policies to increase their fertility rates.

The French government, facing a fertility rate below replacement level of 2.1 to appeal to women through family-centered programs and incentives to make parenting less expensive and less taxing on working mothers. These incentives include a tax break for families, a monthly allowance for families of three children or more, discounts for countrywide services including trains and community facilities, generous parental leave, and funding to hire nannies and housekeepers (a bonus for working mothers).

In 2006 France’s birth rate was 1.3. In 2012, it’s stable at 2.0.

Other European countries are taking note. Sweden’s upswing has been credited to paid maternity leave and Germany is trying the same family-work balance to tackle its discouraging demographics.

Albanese says these programs, while admirable and economically sound in their attempt to make the work-life balance easier, runs the risk of exploiting domestic workers (keeping other women away from their families, and even trapping immigrant women in less-than-desirable conditions) and don’t address the challenges that remain long after the first years of parenthood.

‘The best results come from a long-term commitment to equality.’

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