7 billion and counting: women hold key to population

Millions of women worldwide still lack access to contraception or education. As the planet's seven billionth baby is born, the links between poverty and population have never been so important.

We can only speculate about the name and nationality of the world’s seven billionth citizen, who was born this week. What we do know, though, is that the baby is likely to have been born to one of the planet’s poorest families, in the developing world.

The majority of population growth is taking place in Africa, where fertility rates remain stubbornly high. A woman living in Niger, for example, can expect to give birth to over seven children in her lifetime, while her British counterparts have less than two on average.

Why is there such a discrepancy? In poorer countries, many women simply don’t have a choice about how many children they have, and when they choose to have them. Around the world, around 215 million women don’t have access to contraception, but desperately want it.

And while women in Europe are expected to have careers and support themselves, many in developing countries have scant access to education. More likely to marry early, they have a longer window in which they can fall pregnant, and, unsurprisingly, have more children.

There are practical reasons, too, for the global poor to have big families. More children mean more hands to work the land, earn money, and care for parents in old age. And the tragically high likelihood of children dying before their fifth birthday means it makes sense in some regions to have large families.

The curious paradox of population control, then, is that having better healthcare and opportunity actually leads to slower population growth, even though it means better survival rates for babies and people living longer. All over the world, women who are educated, able to lead independent lives and confident enough to dictate their own reproductive future, have fewer children.

Often, this reduction in birthrate goes hand in hand with a general increase in development. But even when people remain relatively poor, fertility rates have been lowered by focused changes. In Kerala, for example, the fertility rate is just 1.7 – significantly lower than the rest of India. Though many are poor, child mortality is low, and women enjoy better maternal health and much higher levels of literacy and education.

A cause or effect?

For many commentators, women are the true solution to population and poverty. By focusing on education and allowing women to control their reproductive futures, half the population becomes free to contribute to economic development, contributing to their communities and bringing up fewer, but healthier and happier, children.

To create this scenario, however, other forms of progress are necessary first. Female empowerment, after all, cannot happen without funding for the schools and healthcare that will support it. And when children are needed to work, or are likely to die at a young age, having many becomes a necessity. Without developing the economic prospects of a whole nation, the chances of women can never be improved.

You Decide

  1. Is wider economic development the best contraceptive?
  2. Should the developed world get involved in population control in the developing world?

Activities

  1. Write a speech highlighting women's rights and their impact on global population.
  2. You are a policy maker working in Niger, and have been tasked with trying to encourage people to have fewer children. Resources are limited, and you must choose to focus on investment into education, contraception, or healthcare for mothers, babies and young children. Make a case for the area you think will have the most impact, and pitch it to the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“People just need to have fewer children.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Which countries have the highest and lowest birth rates?
Those countries with the highest fertility rates are almost universally in Africa, although Afghanistan's rate is also very high. Japan and Monaco have the world's lowest fertility rates.
Are fertility rates dropping?
Globally, fertility rates are dropping enormously: they've already decreased to 2.1 or less across half the world. That's the replacement rate of fertility – the amount of children needed to keep the population the same. Any lower than that, and the population will decrease.
So is that what we should be aiming for?
Not necessarily – low fertility rates bring their own problems. In many developed countries, for example, an aging population means lots of older people depend on fewer young, working people to support them in their old age.

Word Watch

Niger
A landlocked country in western Africa. Niger has a population of around 15million, but is the largest in the region in terms of land mass. The country has one of the lowest development measures in the world.
Contraception
Also known as birth control – the various methods of preventing unwanted pregnancy
Paradox
A set of statements, facts or observations, which seem to contradict themselves.
Maternal Health
The health of women during and after pregnancy.

Subjects

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