The UN has projected that the world’s population will reach 7 billion today, a scary milestone amidst increasing global political and economic instability. More people will only place increased pressure on our environment, on the world’s habitats, forests, and resources such as water. But how does investing in women’s rights tie into slowing the world’s population growth?
Organizations such as the Guttmacher Institute and Population Action International (PAI) state that the number seven billion reflects the urgent need for people to be able to exercise their right to determine the size and spacing of their families. However, the majority of women and couples, especially in the developing world, are still unable to control their fertility. In fact, experts estimate that there are currently 215 million women around the world who wish to either delay or prevent pregnancy but lack access to contraceptives. Guttmacher states that these women account for more than 80% of all unintended pregnancies in the developing world every year.
What I find fascinating about this relationship is the focus it brings to individual rights, especially women’s rights. What was groundbreaking at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo was the focus it put on women’s rights. This was when population policies stopped being about controlling population and slowing population and started being about empowering women. The idea was that if women had access to education and higher salaried jobs, they would choose to have smaller families, thus lowering the fertility rates. PAI’s Suzaane Ehlers identifies that we have repeatedly been shown that “if you give women the tools to have control over their lives, the numbers will follow.”
So, if we already know the way forward, why does it seems as though we keep moving backwards when it comes to allowing women control over their reproductive health and rights? Why is it that even though we established a roadmap in Cairo over fifteen years ago, today in Washington attacks on women’s reproductive health, both globally and domestically, persist as cuts to foreign aid keep happening?
Investments in women’s health must be made if we are to sustain our planet. We can still reduce the numbers and slow population growth by addressing the world’s unmet need for contraception, as Guttmacher Institute’s Susan Cohen explains:
…Responding directly to individual people’s needs and desires to determine for themselves whether and when to have a child will contribute significantly toward their ability to lead healthier, more productive lives. In turn, these benefits for individuals and families accrue to their communities and to society at large. Ultimately, the impact would be felt at the global level. Meeting the stated desires of all women around the world to space or limit births would result in the world’s population peaking within the next few decades—and then actually starting to decline.
Reaching seven billion may be a milestone today, but unless we address women being able to access modern contraception, this number will only increase and bring with it dire consequences. At the core of the solution is investing in women–our rights and our health. If women are to truly be empowered, they must be in control of their reproduction. And the whole world will reap the rewards.