It was not uncommon in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and even into the early 2000s to hear and read commentaries suggesting that Barbados was over-populated. In fact, the popular belief was that women in Barbados were having too many children, particularly single mothers who struggled to provide the basic necessities.
In rural districts, family homes, with two or three generations of family members were the norm. No eyebrows were raised in condemnation of a woman with seven, eight, nine or ten children.
But highly successful Barbados Family Planning campaigns over the years to educate women on the importance of taking control of their bodies and making decisions regarding the size of their families reaped significant rewards.
Though little is spoken of it today, women, particularly those from destitute households, or those with physical disabilities who sought antenatal care from our main hospital and some public health institutions, were politely offered to “have their tubes tied”. Of course, the suggestion was not known to be made to married women or women of means. And certainly, men who fathered children in villages across the island were not sought out to offer them a similar prescription.
Family planning literature has identified Barbados as one of the success stories in the Caribbean. Birth rates declined by 22 per cent from 1978 to 1998, while the total fertility rate declined by 19 per cent from 1980 to 1990.
With significant declines in funding from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to the region, the void was filled by the United Nation Population Fund. That institution has tiered its funding based on priority categories. And because of Barbados’ success at reducing its population growth, the island was rated as low-level need and the UN agency had prepared to eliminate Barbados from the list of countries receiving UN support for this area.
The subject of population size has returned to the front burner but for a different reason. The political directorate, some of whom were in the forefront of the project to reduce Barbados’ population size, are lamenting that we may have been the victims of our own success.
Barbados’ women, specifically, young women of child-bearing age, comprise the overwhelming group of people seeking tertiary and post-secondary education, generally. They are emerging as the majority in professions once dominated by men such as medicine and law.
Military and uniformed disciplines are reportedly turning back females, who form a sizeable portion of the new applicants, as these institutions seek to encourage more men into their ranks.
Barbadian women, married and single are, rightfully, making deliberate decisions about when and if they want to have children. And those who do, are increasingly deciding on one or maybe two children, as the absolute limit.
According to the World Bank, our birth rate in 2020 was 10.6 births per 1000 people, a decline by 0.25 per cent from the previous year.
It was not long ago that then president of the Barbados Organisation of Women (NOW), Marilyn Rice-Bowen, called on Government to incentivise women in Barbados to have more children by offering increased tax breaks and even direct funding. She reasoned that economics was the influencing factor for many women. The NOW president said an increasing number of women were only prepared to have children they believed they could financially support.
Some, who were not knowledgeable on these matters, thought the idea lacked merit. In fact, such support and incentives including paid leave for up to a year for working mothers, are common practices in Nordic countries like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Again, the subject of Barbados’ low birth rate and our country’s increasingly elderly population are up for debate. Prime Minister Mottley has voiced her preference for managed migration as a way of addressing the problem more aggressively.
Describing it as a “population gap”, Mottley says she favours a more liberal approach of inviting people to make Barbados their home, starting with those from the region.
Speaking on a podcast, titled Recruiting Irish to Barbados, Mottley was asked about the possible transition from the 12-months Welcome Stamp to permanent residence on the island and possible citizenship. She said her administration was working on the related laws.
“I established a National Population Commission when we came into office two years ago. As a result of the work of that commission, we discovered that we have not really replaced our population since 1980, in terms of fertility and growth,” the Prime Minister said.
“To that extent, we are probably 80,000 less than we should be. It means that we are going to have to have a fairly liberal approach to immigration, while at the same time having a very strong framework for managing migration to the island.”
The need to have an additional 80 000 through migration may be disputed. Some who wish to preserve what they see as the Barbadian identity and way of life would prefer organic growth of the population by incentivising Barbadians to have more children.
The country’s National Insurance Scheme (NIS) requires a sizable portion of the population to be employed, and contributing to its various funds, in order for the NIS to be sustainable. We require it to provide the benefits that those who are currently working and contributing have a reasonable expectation that they will be beneficiaries.