The key to tackling population dilemmas? Empowering women

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

President of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development Baroness Jenny Tonge. [AFGH]

Today is World Population Day, a chance to reflect on the challenges population can pose. Whether a country is struggling with a rising or declining population, the solution is the same; the promotion of reproductive rights and gender equality, writes Jenny Tonge.

Baroness Jenny Tonge is President of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF). EPF is a member of the Action for Global Health (AfGH) network.

How unfair would it be if the number of players on a country’s football team was decided in proportion to its population? Let’s say one player for every 10 million citizens. Brazil (more than 200 million inhabitants) might have done better against Germany (just over 80 million) if this had been the case, but it wouldn’t have been a fair match. Just as the rules of football seek to create a level playing pitch, the international community needs to set development targets seeking to ensure all citizens of the world have the same chance of leading a healthy and fulfilled life. 

Today – World Population Day – is an opportunity to reflect on the population challenges faced by every state and by the global community. The complex balance required for a society to sustain and care for itself with a stable workforce is difficult to find. Some states face the problem of a rapidly increasing population, while others are confronted by the challenge of a population that is declining. These might seem like completely different problems, but they actually have the same solution: the promotion of reproductive rights and gender equality.

The role of these human rights is obvious in the case of many African and Asian countries where the population is rising at speed, far surpassing the wishes of mothers, their resources, the local environment’s capacity and the public services that are available. Here, the provision of family planning, modern means of contraception and sexual education, gives women choices over the number and spacing of children, in turn helping achieve a more sustainable level of population growth.

But how can these rights assist countries with the opposite problem, where population growth is too slow, or even declining? These countries – like Japan, where the population has declined for the fifth straight year – risk not having enough taxpayers to support those requiring public services like education, healthcare or pensions, or enough people to occupy the roles required to enable society to function. Here, couples are often deterred from having children by factors such as prohibitively expensive childcare and discrimination against women in the workplace.

Recent rises in fertility in countries like Sweden, France and the UK show what can happen when gender equality is promoted, and when initiatives are introduced to make parenthood more appealing – such as generous parental leave, allowing parental leave to be shared between men and women and making childcare affordable.

New development agenda

However, the international community has been too slow in empowering women to make choices about the size of their family. For example, there are 222 million women and girls who want, but do not have access, to modern means of family planning. Indeed, reproductive rights, family planning and gender equality are challenged the world over.

In Europe, there are powerful forces at work supporting the notion that personal religious beliefs should shape government policy within European member states and in their development aid policies. We saw this recently with the failed “One of Us” European Citizens Initiative, which sought to stop EU development aid, which goes to providing the modern family planning and safe abortion services that are essential in fighting maternal mortality. Such people believe that governments should use the moral power of religion to strengthen their traditional definition of family, and deny people control of their body and their destiny.

Although sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) are politically charged, support for these human rights does not divide along party or ideological lines. The European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development is a network of parliamentarians from over 30 countries across Europe who come from all major political parties across the political spectrum. These members of parliament share a common belief that by respecting, educating and empowering women in their reproductive rights and choices, we can bring population growth in line with the levels that are required to live in an ecologically and economically sustainable way.

The coming months will see an intensification of international efforts to produce universal development targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. If the international community is serious about tackling population challenges, it is essential that sexual and reproductive health and rights form a key part of the new development agenda. EU member states and the EU institutions – including the European Parliament Development Committee (DEVE), whose membership was decided this week – have a crucial role to play in ensuring this happens.

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