The real cause for alarm, however, is not the prospect of a baby boom or a baby bust. This is the risk that we treat the “population” as more important than the people. Many countries have learned the hard lesson that assigning an ideal size to a population is not the answer to a variety of concerns, from struggling economies to the climate crisis. Instead, it often leads to the erosion of human rights and choices, especially when women are forced to have children – or prevented from doing so. When population growth slows, it can mean, at worst, new or expanded restrictions on abortion or contraception. Some places with rising birth rates have, in the darkest chapters of history, experienced coercive family planning and involuntary sterilization.
There is no doubt that the population is intimately linked to the economy. Demographic changes have an impact on development progress. A demographic country with more working people and fewer young and old dependents may be able to better finance and support public services and pension systems. Having fewer workers can send all of these benefits in the opposite direction. These are questions that rightly concern us all.
But what about the assumptions that accompany these relationships? Managing populations to keep pace with progress is based on an implicit notion that women’s bodies are at the service of economic policy. If demographic trends move in an “unwelcome” direction, a tone of blame arises around women’s choices, whether to have children or to pursue a job or other goals. Arguments like this miss the point that every woman has the right to make choices about her body. They also avoid grappling with complex issues that are a collective responsibility. How easily can women make real choices without a decent job and income, for example? Or when sexual and reproductive health care is poor or non-existent? Or if the custody of the children is theirs alone?
And then there are the gender norms, rooted in men’s rights, which burden women with unpaid housework and care, deny them opportunities, and subject them to domestic violence. Our recent report from the United Nations Population Fund found that nearly half of women in the 57 countries for which data are available cannot even exercise autonomy over their own bodies, which means they cannot cannot make fundamental decisions about their health, contraception and sex life. As gender equality is not yet fully realized in any part of the world, these concerns know no borders. They are at play in poor and rich countries, in shrinking and growing populations.
The history of population policies is full of failures and unintended consequences. For this reason, 179 nations agreed on the centrality of reproductive rights and choices for human and economic development at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. More than 25 years later, decision-makers and experts should know better than to propose management of populations by telling women the choices they must make. The real conversation should be about how we can defend the right of everyone to make their own reproductive choices, with all the evidence pointing to that this leads to happier and healthier societies.
This requires recognizing the rights of women in all spheres of life. This would mean that every woman has the information and services necessary to make her own choices in matters of sexual and reproductive health. Such services would be essential to health systems and would not be easily suspended, as happened in many places during the onset of Covid-19, when family planning was one of the most disrupted health services in the world. . To fully support choices, this would mean accelerating the elimination of gender disparities at all levels – in terms of income, asset ownership, leadership and the law. This would mean easing the burden of parenting by increasing support for childcare and parental leave.
Prioritizing rights and choices means seeing people as more than an input into economies. Rather than asking women to produce a steady infusion of new workers to support economies, we should ask ourselves how and if economies serve women. Rather than seeing demographic changes as a national economic concern, countries could approach the issue multilaterally, sharing innovations and best practices.
Countries experiencing an explosion of youth, on the one hand, and aging, on the other hand, could work together to close the gaps on either side. Increased labor mobility, family-friendly social programs, and increased investment in research and data collection to inform smarter policy making are all rights-affirming responses. man rather than undermining them.
We must also view people as more than a threat to the planetary resources. When it comes to climate change and environmental degradation, here too a simple consideration of the number of people is not enough. The billion people in Africa have the highest population growth rates in the world, but have contributed only a tiny fraction of total greenhouse gas emissions, even though they suffer some of the worst climate impacts.
Instead, the focus should be on expanding opportunities for women (and indeed everyone) to plan their families as they see fit, to pursue education and decent work, to access affordable clean energy and to produce and consume resources in a more sustainable way.
Women have long been denied rights and choices. And yet, for many of us, whenever the choice emerges, we take it and we own it. And we will continue to do so. No amount of torturers should stop the momentum of choice.
We will have more harmonious societies, inclusive economies and a better balance with nature when people can fully realize their right to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives, and take every opportunity to do so, on terms that only they define.
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