This is a guest post by Dr. Nafis Sadik, the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Asia and the Pacific and serves on the Board of Directors of Population Action International. She is an obstetrician-gynecologist by training, and served as Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund from 1987-2000.
This week, the birth of a baby somewhere took the world population past the 7 billion mark. That’s something to celebrate. Few thought the world could sustain that many people, ever – yet here we are. If you’re over 45, world population has doubled in your lifetime, and it’s still growing.
But the news is not all good. As we pass the 7 billion milestone, and go on to 9 billion or more by 2050, we face a “perfect storm” of future needs for food, energy and water. There are already 600 million people today who can’t count on eating tomorrow. And tomorrow there will be a lot more faces around the table.
We will need all our ingenuity, and all our resources, to weather this perfect storm. I’m going to concentrate on only one resource, but one of the most important – the world’s women.
Let me say up front that I am not calling for so-called “population control” or anything like that. Birth rates in many countries have been falling for many years. Families in Mexico, for example, are half the size they were in 1980, because women have decided they want smaller families than their mothers’. That decision is a fundamental freedom for women – a basic human right.
But the mothers of the next generation are already born, so population goes on growing. How fast depends on whether women in Africa and South Asia (where most of the world’s babies are born) can make their own decisions about childbearing. If it’s up to them, they will have fewer children than their mothers, and population growth will be slower. In this case, human rights and global needs mesh perfectly. Perfect storm, meet perfect answer – at least in this one, all-important area.
There’s more. The “tiger economies”– East Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore whose powerhouse growth startled the world in the 1980s and 1990s – built their economic prosperity on a social base laid down in the 1960s and 1970s. With universal health care and education for women, population growth slowed down. Women with smaller families began working outside of the home. Schools and health systems with smaller intakes had more to spend on each child. Healthy, educated girls and boys grew into productive men and women with a strong sense of their own worth. Resources were freed up for investment – and so on.
South Asia isn’t South Korea, but there are lessons here. How do women get to exercise their rights? It isn’t just a matter of more family planning – though there are more than 200 million women today who would use family planning if they could. The policy choices before us are more complex. They include three basic elements – health (including reproductive health), education, and equality with men. All are interlinked and all are needed if women are really going to be free to make their own decisions.
Universal health care, education and equality for women may sound like a tall order, but it’s already on the world’s agenda. The Millennium Development Goals, agreed on by 189 heads of state in 2000, call for universal primary education and closing the gender gap in education. They call for a 75 percent drop in maternal mortality, and universal access to reproductive health information and services. The overall goal is to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015.
There are obstacles. There are always obstacles. Poverty is self-perpetuating. It limits the choices countries, and people, can make. But the first and most important obstacle is in the mind. The Millennium Development Goals aren’t realistic? Most experts think they are rather modest. Many countries have already met some of them, and many more could do so with the minimum of support. We can’t afford foreign aid? Actually, the US contribution to overseas assistance is about $60 billion – worth about as much as the food this country throws away every three months.
Women aren’t ready to take the lead? Tell that to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s President and this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, or any of millions of women working as entrepreneurs, or in government, banking and industry. Tell that to the women farmers who produce half the world’s food, and 80 to 90 percent of Africa’s – aren’t they already proving that they can make headway, even against the wind?
The Millennium Goals are achievable. Achieving them will transform the lives of girls and women across the globe. They will also help weather the perfect storm, and take us into the world of 8 billion and beyond. Today’s girls and young women are not only the mothers of the next generation – they are the farmers, traders, legislators, investors and leaders of tomorrow’s world. In the most literal sense, they are our future. They deserve our help.