An Opportunity for Women in the New Global Population Numbers?

By 2050, the world will contain 10 billion people, the UN now predicts, but we shouldn't see the statistic through the failed lens of population control


Reuters/Joe Tan

Could the best way to stabilize the world's population be to not talk about population?

The UN now predicts that the human population of the planet, long predicted to level out at nine billion people, will now most likely reach 10 billion people by the year 2050. The new projections offer an opportunity to move beyond the flawed framework of population control and towards global activism on behalf of women.

But first we need to understand why the population projections have skyrocketed. Partial credit for the population boom can be given to humanity's response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Life-expectancy for people with HIV/AIDS has grown markedly since the United Nations' last report, thanks to the increasing availability of antiretroviral treatments. The decreasing mortality rate for HIV/AIDS is being helped along by the doggedly high fertility rates in some of the poorest nations on the planet.

These high fertility-rate nations, largely in Africa, are where most of the population growth will be experienced, while the rest of the world will be dealing with an aging population. The UN divides the world into three parts; high-, intermediate-, and low-fertility countries. Nations where women have an average of one daughter or less are considered low-fertility. In intermediate-fertility nations, women have an average of between one and 1.5 daughters. In high-fertility nations, women have an average greater than 1.5 daughters each.



At the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Malthus declared that humanity needed to practice "moral restraint" in order to reduce the suffering of an unsustainable population ravaged by disease and famine. His ideas were refined by evolutionary biologists from Charles Darwin onward. The challenge with this population-centric framework is that humans don't see themselves as numbers, collectively striving to maintain a balance on the planet. Each family makes decisions based on their economic, social and cultural circumstance. The size of the global population is the sum total of those billions of small decisions.

After the growth of the population movement in the 1970s, China and India both undertook massive population-control initiatives. India's campaign largely failed. People in democracies have little interest in the harsh methods necessary to rapidly change demographics. China's one-child policy, on the other hand, was remarkably successful in lowering the fertility of Chinese families. But the story of the suffering it caused has never fully been told. Reportedly millions of men and women were forcibly sterilized in China during this period. Can the  collective good justify such harsh actions?

Today, India's population is younger and faster-growing, while China's population faces the prospect of each child supporting two elderly parents, which will cause another set of challenges as the central Chinese state will be forced to adopt a different social contract with its aging citizens.

If all of this sounds complicated, it is. Populations of any species are notoriously difficult to control by force. In 1958, Mao Zedong launched the great sparrow campaign in China, encouraging people to kill sparrows in order the protect the seeds they were planting in their fields. The killing of the sparrows lead to the growth of the locust population, which helped lead to the Great Chinese Famine, eventually killing over 30 million people.

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The sparrow wasn't the problem--it was merely a symptom of farming techniques that didn't use beneficial cover crops, mulching, and other techniques to protect seeds. But by focusing on the sparrows, Mao created a host of other problems, while not solving for his primary goal of increasing Chinese farm yield. Similarly, it's not a bad idea to be concerned about the size of the world's population, but focusing on population is not an effective way to solve for the challenges underneath. Those challenges? Three billion people still living in unacceptable poverty; a billion more, at least, living without the basic freedoms needed for long term sustainability; and a planet with limited and diminishing natural resources.

Population activists need to move beyond the inevitable assumption that they're only concerned about women as breeders. The indicators we should be watching are the levels of education, status, rights, and economic opportunities for women on the planet, not simply the number of daughters that women are having. By all means, we should be making family planning available to empower women to be in control of their bodies. But we shouldn't do it for the sake of population control, we should do it because it gives women control of their destinies.

In the last decade, most of the organizations involved in this sector have begun to focus increasingly on the status of women; but the language of "population" remains. From population reports to population bureaus, the infrastructure is named to solve a symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself. It's time to move away from the language of population control and towards an even more vibrant advocacy on behalf of women.