Population Change and Challenge

Like everything else in our world, change in population is swifter than ever. The most profound changes in population, however, are not demographic but social, and they go deep into personal and family life. Women are tasting new freedoms—new expressions of their fundamental human rights—and these have profound implications for both men and the social structures they traditionally dominate.

Demographic change has certainly been swift. In 1970, world population was less than 4 billion: today, it is over 6 billion and will stand at 8 billion by 2025, with nearly all of that growth concentrated in what are still called “developing countries”-- most of Asia and nearly all of Latin America and Africa.

Hidden within those astounding numbers, however, are some more hopeful figures. Over the last 30 years, family size in developing countries has fallen by half, from 6 children to 3; there are many more women today, but compared with their mothers--or any previous generation--they have fewer children. On a scale unknown to history, women are making choices for themselves, and their choice is for smaller families.

Back in 1970, the issue of population growth was controversial. It divided north and south, developed and developing countries, in a way that few other issues did—with blame and counter-suspicions cast widely – and with the result that population concerns tended to sink toward the bottom of the agenda of most countries and international organizations. Few developing countries had family planning programs. The people who carried most of the responsibility for bearing and raising children—women--were not heard from at all.

Nothing could be further from the way population issues are viewed today. There is a global consensus that population issues are part of daily life. Reproductive health and gender equality have become an integral part of the human rights agenda.

The amazing though little-known fact is that this epochal change marks a real and visible success for the United Nations and its ponderous but painstaking way of reaching consensus. Slowly, over years of long discussion and hard-won practice, divisions between the various population camps have been closing.

Or not so much closing as shown to grow from false premises. A generation of practice has shown that if women have choices--real choices--they will have smaller families than their parents’ generation. The reasons are complex and not completely understood, but the facts are clear. Family size and population growth rates thus become not so much a matter for high-level decision, but the results of many private decisions further down the power structure.

Many things flow from this. In the past, policy and politics were a matter for men: now women increasingly play an equal part. In countries like India and Uganda, for example, women sit on local and regional legislatures by right. That women need access to health care for themselves and their children, in particular family planning, is more widely accepted every day. Nearly all countries now officially support family planning.

Even this is not enough. If women are going to use contraception successfully, they must be able to make their own decisions about it. The implications of this are revolutionary for societies where women traditionally have not been allowed to make decisions for themselves.

After all, if women can decide about family planning, why not about other things? The whole power structure of the family, and the community in which the family lives, begins to change. In Bangladesh, for example, where women have traditionally been kept from public view, they now use cell-phones to contact one another, raise loans and do business. In some families, women are now the main earners.

In many developing countries, there has been an explosion of women’s groups in the last decade, and these assert themselves as never before. In Chile, for example, mothers went on the street in favor of a move by the education ministry, but opposed by the Church, to include sex education in school.

Government, of course, is still needed: governments provide health care and education, the two most critical elements of the mix. And leadership is needed, though in new and unfamiliar ways. Political leaders must pay attention to social needs: economic growth by itself won’t solve social problems; in fact the realization is spreading that sustained economic growth depends on dealing with social issues. The “Asian tigers,” for example, made heavy investments in education and health, including family planning, early in their development. This investment paid off a thousandfold in terms of social stability, a healthy and educated workforce and faster economic growth

Governments today must pay attention to women, though, granted, for many, this is proving hard to do. International agreements have been reached: human rights structures are in place. Agreement, however, is one thing: implementation another.

Women are willing to make partnerships to make progress. The problem lies with men. Somehow men must learn that equal power for women does not threaten their own power: that being a man does not depend on controlling a woman; that sharing power makes everyone more powerful.

Men in all countries, from poorest to richest, at all levels of society, are learning that they must change. That is the lesson of the last 30 years, and the great success for all of us who have spent our lives in population and development. We have changed population concerns from a divisive political issue to a social force, behind which women and men can unite. In the process, the structures of both politics and society are changing. This is a quiet revolution: and it has only just begun.