“In the future he could support his father and the girls,” said Ghanem, 27, who lives in a village in Sohag, an area with one of Egypt’s highest fertility rates.
The family depends on her husband’s income from a local cafe. “If I have a son people, here in the village can say that he will carry on his father’s name,” she said.
As Egypt’s population heads towards 100 million, the government is trying to change the minds of people like Ghanem. “Two Is Enough” is the government’s first family-planning campaign aiming to challenge traditions of large families in rural Egypt. But Ghanem’s wish to have a son shows how hard that could be.
“The main challenge is that we’re trying to change a way of thinking,” said Randa Fares, coordinator of the campaign at the Social Solidarity Ministry. “To change a way of thinking is difficult.”
Egypt’s population is growing by 2.6 million a year, a high rate for a country where water and jobs are scarce and schools and hospitals overcrowded. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi says the two biggest threats to Egypt are terrorism and population growth.
“We are faced with scarcity in water resources … scarcity in jobs, job creation, and we need to really control this population growth so that people can feel the benefits of development,” Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali told Reuters.
“Two Is Enough” is mainly financed by Egyptian money, with the Social Solidarity Ministry spending 75 million Egyptian pounds ($4.27 million) and the U.N. providing 10 million pounds, according to the ministry.
The two-year campaign targets more than 1.1 million poor families with up to three children. The Social Solidarity Ministry, with local NGOs, has trained volunteers to make home visits and encourage people to have fewer children.
Mothers are invited to seminars with preachers who say that Islam allows family planning, and doctors who answer questions. Billboards and TV ads promote smaller families. The government aims to reduce the current fertility rate of 3.5 to 2.4 by 2030.
At a session teaching volunteers how to speak to mothers and fathers about family planning in a village in Giza, Asmaa Mohammad, a 25-year-old volunteer, told Reuters she would rather have three children than two.
“Since I was a child I knew I wanted three children,” said Mohammad who is unmarried and doesn’t have children yet.
Deeply rooted traditions and lack of education explain why many Egyptians have big families. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Sunni Muslim authority, endorses family planning, but not all Egyptians agree.
Some view children as a future source of support. Others who only have girls keep having more until they get a boy who can carry on the family name.
During a visit from a campaign volunteer, Ghanem said her wish to have a boy was not the main reason she wasn’t using contraceptives. She stopped using an IUD after suffering from bleeding.
About one in three Egyptian women stop using contraceptives within a year, often due to misinformation about the side effects or lack of information about alternatives, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Nearly 13 percent of married women of reproductive age in Egypt want to use contraceptives but are unable to, according to official data from 2014.
Now the government has renovated clinics, added staff and provided more free contraceptives. Under “Two is Enough” the goal is to have 70 new clinics up and running in March.
Since January, the government has limited cash assistance to poor families to two children instead of three in an attempt to push them to have fewer kids. Mahmoud will receive less cash every month. Her husband works only a few days a month, making 45 Egyptian pounds ($2.60) a day, she said.
Mahmoud and her neighbour Sanaa Mohammad, a 38-year-old mother of three, said the change should apply to new families, not women like them who already benefit from the programme and have more than two children.
“It’s not fair to give someone something and then take it away,” said Mohammad.
The government sees the population boom as a threat to its economic reform plans. Every year, 800,000 young Egyptians enter the labour market, where unemployment is officially 10 percent.
In Egypt, population growth is around half the economic growth rate, but it should be no more than a third – otherwise it will be difficult to invest in social programmes and improve living standards, said Magued Osman, chief executive of Baseera, the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research.
Analysts say Egypt should target people before they have children and sex education should be available in schools.
“Two Is Enough is good, but by itself it will not do the job,” said Abla Abdel Latif, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.
Wafaa Mohammad Amin, 36, a mother of four who works on “Two Is Enough”, got married at 17 and had her first child a year later. Two of her children were malnourished because she didn’t know how to breastfeed properly. She had to postpone her education and couldn’t work for years.
“There are many things I know now that I wish I had known back then,” she said. “I don’t want others to go through what I went through.”