World Population Day: Ensuring the rights of women and girls

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

World Population Day is a day for the human rights of the girl child, women and mothers. The European Parliament currently has two chances to make a difference, argues French MEP Véronique Mathieu Houillon.

Véronique Mathieu Houillon is a French MEP from the European People’s Party. She is a member and EPP coordinator of two parliamentary committees – Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, and Organised Crime, Corruption and Money-Laundering. She is also part of the delegation for relations with Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Each year on World Population Day (11 July) we draw the public’s attention to the critical relationship between people and the planet. Since the world’s population passed 7 billion in October 2011 we have often been reminded about the rate at which the world’s population is increasing. For someone born in 1960 the number of people on the planet has more than doubled during their lifetime, and last month the UN published its projection that it is set to rise even further to almost 10 billion by 2050.

The majority of this increase is taking place in the world’s poorest countries, where over 200 million women have no access to modern forms of family planning (but would like to) and the population is set to double within the next generation. This is a cause for concern not only for their human rights, but also economically, politically, socially and environmentally. And the EU must take the lead in creating policies that will meet the demands of women and girls and enable societies to develop healthily and according to their means.

On this day last year the international community took an enormous stride towards rectifying the human rights abuse faced by the global cohort of women and girls who are being denied their reproductive rights. At the London Family Planning Summit, a group of world leaders agreed to commit to providing 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries with access to modern contraceptives by 2020. This event was a high-point for the development community. For when else in recent history has one action stood to resolve over half of one of the great challenges facing global development?

Europe has a vital role to play in these matters. It is home to the largest number of global donors and has itself been able to develop as a result of empowering its women in their reproductive choices and rights, and enabling them to have the number of children they choose. One of the major European donors is the European Union itself, and EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs was one of the leaders who pledged to devote funds to family planning on our behalf in London.

The EU is generally very supportive of population matters (on paper at least), and at present there are two reports in the pipeline at the European Parliament that stand to have an impact on women’s reproductive health and rights and their autonomy.

First, the report on “Gendercide – the missing women?” was adopted in the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in June, and will be voted on in a plenary session at the beginning of September. Secondly the report on “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” is under discussion for amendments and will be voted upon in the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in September and in the plenary at the end of October.

As I saw on a trip to India in 2011, sex-selective abortion is posing a threat for the wellbeing of countless societies across the world. Millions of women are being discriminated against before they are born owing to archaic beliefs that value men over women. The potential consequences that this cruel and misguided mindset will have for society are disastrous. The EU must discuss this issue and agree a stance upon it.

The SRHR report is the first report on this issue that the European Parliament has seen in a decade. It will enable MEPs to understand – and demonstrate that they understand – the importance of championing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and positioning it at the heart of development. The foundation of this report is broad, and it covers all of the main matters at stake: contraception, unwanted pregnancies and access to safe abortion, sexuality education, gender-based violence, maternal mortality, the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and official development assistance relating to these issues. These are all vital areas where the European Parliament must take the lead and set an example to the rest of he world.

Both reports are important instruments for the future of EU policy in areas relating to population and development, and give a useful preliminary indication of the political support that the EU will offer in other crucial related areas. One such area is the future framework of International Development after 2015. It is therefore essential that we agree on language that will promote a woman-centred and rights-based approach to the subjects in question and development as a whole.

But we must also not forget that there is strong opposition to both issues from opponents to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. For these people the Gendercide report simply offers a chance to try to restrict access to abortion per se, rather than a chance to tackle the deeply engrained social inequalities that are at the root of the dreadful phenomenon. They fail to recognise that it is the low status of women and girls, the neglect of their value and their rights and the deeply embedded discrimination against them that cause gender-based sex selection. And it is this neglect of their value and their rights that the report is confronting.

Meanwhile the same opponents are using the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights  report to try to limit women’s sexual and reproductive rights. They aim to restrict the assistance that the European Union offers to women in the developing world in all areas related to their reproductive wellbeing, and we must be alert to these intentions too.

This year on World Population Day we need to ensure that the momentum that our leaders created a year ago will continue, and continue to grow. Population is about women’s rights. If we empower and look after our women and girls, then our population will look after itself.

Further Reading

  • European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development: Homepage [FR]