International

Impact Of Growing Population Anxiety Can Erode Women's Body Rights: UN Report

A report, '8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: The case for rights and choices', by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), released today, April 19, reveals population anxieties are widespread and governments are increasingly adopting policies aimed at raising, lowering or maintaining fertility rates.

World Population
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As the global population reached a whopping 8 billion in November last year, it became a sign of certain positive indicators to analyse; it meant that women are surviving pregnancy, more children are making it through the initial precarious months of life, medicine has been advancing and people are living healthier lives. 

However, despite the “milestone” representing historic advances for humanity in medicine, science, health, agriculture and education, the growing population is often met with a considerable amount of anxiety. The burden of this anxiety largely falls on women and their health which is closely intertwined with women’s body rights across the world. 

A report, “8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: The case for rights and choices”, by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), released today, April 19, reveals population anxieties are widespread and governments are increasingly adopting policies aimed at raising, lowering or maintaining fertility rates. But efforts to influence fertility rates are very often ineffective and can erode women’s rights.

According to UNFPA's State of World Population report, a staggering 44 per cent of partnered women and girls in 68 reporting countries do not have the right to make informed decisions about their bodies when it comes to having sex, using contraception and seeking health care; and an estimated 257 million women worldwide have an unmet need for safe, reliable contraception. 

The State of World Population report, published yearly since 1978, shines a light on emerging issues in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and explores the challenges and opportunities they present for international development.

History has shown that fertility policies designed to increase or lower birth rates are very often
ineffective and can undermine women’s rights. The report adds that many countries have rolled out programmes to engineer larger families by offering financial incentives and rewards to women and their partners, yet they continue to see birth rates below two children per woman. And efforts to slow population growth through forced sterilization and coercive contraception have grossly violated human rights.

“Women’s bodies should not be held captive to population targets,” says UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. “To build thriving and inclusive societies, regardless of population size, we must radically rethink how we talk about and plan for population change.” She urges that family planning must not be used as a tool for achieving fertility targets; it is a tool for empowering individuals. The report notes that ‘women should be able to choose if, when and how many children they would like to have, free from the coercion of pundits and officials’.

The 2023 State of World Population found out that 24 per cent of partnered women and girls are unable to say no to sex and 11per cent are unable to make decisions specifically about contraception, according to data from 68 reporting countries.

Citing a recent UN report, the SOWP noted that greater gender parity in the labour force would do more to sustain economies in ageing, low-fertility societies than setting targets for women to have more children.

Further, there is a long history of the state and policymakers manipulating the population numbers and women, for the longest, have paid the heaviest price for their bodies being used as a “tool” to adjust these numbers. 

On the other hand, the survey of eight countries showed people who had been exposed to media or conversations about the world’s population were more likely to view the global population as being too high.

Other challenges that add to the anxiety of population growth

The “milestone” of 8 billion people has been received at a moment of overlapping and escalating crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the dawning climate catastrophe and historic levels of mass displacement. The report finds out that weakened economies, conflict, and food and energy shortages pose threats everywhere in the world. The future can seem bleak; globally, more than 6 in 7 people say they feel insecure. Amid these concerns, it is all too easy to interpret the biggest demographic headlines of the moment – 8 billion people on Earth alongside historically low fertility rates.

What does the report suggest?

The report strongly recommends governments institute policies with gender equality and rights at their heart, such as parental leave programmes, child tax credits, policies that promote gender equality in the workplace, and universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. These offer a proven formula that will reap economic dividends and lead to resilient societies able to thrive no matter how populations change.

Experts emphasise turning away from the population growth target and focusing more on demographic resilience that would help adapt to the fluctuations in population number and fertility rate that ‘will continue’. 

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