Print options

May 30, 2013

Women Bear Brunt of Population Growth

by Joe DeCapua

The global population is expected to rise to nine billion by 2050. Most of that growth will be in developing countries. However, many are asking whether such growth is sustainable, considering the amount of resources that would be consumed. The issues of population growth and sustainability were addressed on the closing day of the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur.

The economies of many developing countries are growing fast. And consumers there are acting more and more like consumers in developed nations. For example, diets are changing, with higher fat, salt and sugar content and there’s a rising demand for cars and bigger homes.

But participants at the Women Deliver conference are asking whether those should be among the aspirations of the developing world? And if so, at what cost to the planet? And what cost to women, who may lack health care and reproductive rights?

Worldwatch Institute President Robert Engelman began the session by mentioning an article in the May 29th edition of the International Herald Tribune. It reported on new strains of viruses for the flu and SARS, both claiming lives. What’s more, the authors say the world sees at least five new, emerging infectious diseases every year.

He said, “They list these causes for this worrisome trend in this order: population growth, deforestation, antibiotic overuse, factory farming, live animal markets, bush meat hunting, jet travel and other factors.”

He pointed out that population growth is at the top of the list.

“Today we are at a moment in history in which our collective activities already undermine the livelihoods and health of hundreds of millions, maybe billions of people – the vast majority of them poor and more than half of them, much more than half of them, female,” he said.

That’s happening, he said, in a number of ways.

“I’m speaking of human-caused climate change, obviously, but also emerging disease, the shrinking size of subsistence farm plots, the fall of soil fertility and aquifers that help feed farmers with water, the drying up of rivers, the ongoing loss of diverse and wild animal food sources and the rising cost of energy and food. Many of the scientists who study these issues consider the growth of human population, which has doubled since the mid 1960s, as at least one important causal factor in these hazardous developments.”

Engelman said that rather than calling for population control, more scientists are recommending empowering women and couples to achieve their own reproductive goals.

“With nearly one in four births worldwide resulting from unintended pregnancy, you don’t have to be a scientist to see that if all the births that occurred in the world were the result of women’s and couples’ aspirations, particularly maternal aspirations, that population growth would slow pretty significantly and possibly would never get to the expected nine billion people,” Engelman said.

Ford Foundation’s Kavita Ramdas questioned what might happen if developing world aspirations follow those of countries like the United States?

“The U.S., with less than five percent of the world’s total population, uses more than 25 percent of the world’s total fossil fuel resources. And in terms of aspirations, new houses in the United States are now 38 percent bigger in 2002 than they were in 1975, despite having fewer people per household than they did in 1975.”

Ramdas said that there’s enough evidence to show it would be the wrong path to take.

“Everything we know scientifically tells us that if the levels of consumption that we aspire to in the rest of the world were replicated across even half of the nine billion people that we are expected to have on the planet by 2050, the impact on our world be extraordinarily severe. So clearly there is a reason for us to be willing to talk certainly about population and women’s rights and the 200-million women who want to use contraception,” she said.

However, talking about empowering women with reproductive rights often collides head-on with reality.

Ramdas said, “For many, many women in the world sex is not something they have much control over. If you do survey after survey in much of Africa and in much of the parts of South Asia, nonconsensual sex is the experience of many, many women. And I think we should also be talking about single people and other people, who also have a right to access to contraception and it’s not necessarily about families.”

Harvard School of Public Health lecturer Alicia Yamin said there’s plenty of evidence that greater reproductive rights would reduce population growth.

“We need to take seriously the threat posed by untrammeled population growth and the effects on women, especially. We also need to take seriously the suffering of women, who don’t have access to contraception. But I hope that in the next development framework we can also take seriously what development should be about – what human beings are as active agents, who should be able to expand their choices, their rights and their capabilities,” she said.

U.N. Population Fund Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said population growth varies. Some countries have an increase, some have none and others have population shrinkage.

“In every particular circumstance,” he said, “when you go around and ask the women -- how many children do you want to have? -- they actually want less than the ones they have. So, what we have denied them is their right to make that choice – to have the number they want and the spacing they want in between them. So, it comes back to the issue of freedoms and choices.”

But he added that sustainability is more than addressing consumption and population growth. It’s also about addressing waste, such as the one trillion dollars worth of food wasted every year. Osotimehin said that sustainability is also about the politics of distribution and access.