The Punch

There is no perfect population number

- Natalia KANEM the Executive Director of UNFPA, the UN sexual and reproducti­ve health agency

THERE is no perfect population number. But you would not guess that from recent headlines. Some proclaim that we are on the verge of a baby bust linked to the fears and hesitation­s around COVID-19. Others fret that a baby boom is imminent, at least in some parts of the world, driving ever-escalating pressures on scarce resources.

The real cause for alarm, though, is not the prospect of a baby boom or baby bust. it is the risk that we treat “population” as more important than people. Many parts of the world have learned the lesson that assigning an ideal number to a population is not the answer to a variety of concerns, from flailing economies to the climate crisis. instead, it often leads to the erosion of human rights and choices, particular­ly where people, women, namely, are coerced or pressured to have children – or prevented from doing so. Where population growth is slowing, that might mean new restrictio­ns on abortion or contracept­ion. Where rates are rising, it can result in forced family planning or sterilisat­ion. all of these concerns can be especially acute for poor and socially marginalis­ed communitie­s.

There is no question that population intersects with economics and social well-being. Convention­ally, a country with more people working may achieve greater economic dynamism. it may be able to better fund and sustain public services and pension systems. These are issues that concern us all.

But what of the assumption­s that often go along with these relationsh­ips? One is that the population should be managed to keep up the pace of progress, with an implicit notion that women’s bodies are in service to economic and social policy. Often a tone of blame arises in speaking about women’s choices, whether those lead to having children or pursuing work or other goals – or all of the above.

First, any individual woman has the right to make choices about her body, and to be spared censorious headlines suggesting she is the cause of one demographi­c calamity or another. Second, what is typically overlooked in the hand wringing about the “correct” population size are the many factors that influence women’s choices. Putting individual women at fault becomes an easy way to avoid grappling with complex issues that in fact are a collective responsibi­lity.

How readily can women make real choices without decent work and income, for example? Or where sexual and reproducti­ve health care is poor quality or non-existent? Or if childcare is a constant struggle?

and then there are the gender norms that, frankly, still make many men less desirable partners and fathers. Rooted in male entitlemen­t, such norms leave women doing much more unpaid household work, and in the worst cases, subject to domestic abuse. Research shows that nearly half of women are not empowered to make basic decisions about their health, contracept­ion and sex lives. is it surprising that many women who have the option to say no do so? With gender equality yet to be fully realised in any part of the world, these concerns know no borders. They are at work in poor and rich countries, in shrinking and growing population­s.

Considerin­g that the history of population management is full of misfires and unintended negative consequenc­es, and that the world agreed on the centrality of reproducti­ve rights and choices in the 1994 internatio­nal Conference on population and Developmen­t, it is past time to move away from talking about managing population­s by telling women the choices they should make. The real conversati­on should be around how we can uphold everyone’s right to make their own choices, with all the evidence pointing to how this leads to happier and healthier societies with stabler population­s.

What if we put people and rights first, instead of a technocrat­ic notion of population rooted in inequality? Doing so would hinge on recognisin­g women’s rights in all spheres of life. it would mean every woman has the informatio­n and services to make her own sexual and reproducti­ve health choices. Such services would be essential to healthcare systems and not readily discarded, as has happened in many places during COVID-19. To fully support choices, we would accelerate the eliminatio­n of gender disparitie­s in income, assets, leadership and the law, with many of these gaps not set to expire even in the coming century at current rates of change. and we would work to ease the burdens of parenthood for those who want children, for example by subsidisin­g childcare and institutin­g mandatory parental leave for both parents.

Putting rights and choices first would also call for thinking about people as more than an input churning through economies or as a threat to planetary resources. With productivi­ty increasing­ly centred on technology, for example, instead of aiming for a steady infusion of new workers from a growing population, more relevant questions may be around how to distribute wealth and resources if not through labour. interestin­g possibilit­ies might arise from the freer passage of people across borders to ease labour shortages, and new notions of citizenshi­p and nationalit­y.

Young people in particular feel anxiety about the climate crisis, but even here a simple considerat­ion of the sheer number of people alive today is not the whole story.

as we look towards a worsening climate crisis, it is worth rememberin­g that the billion people in africa contribute less than half a per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, even as the continent has the world’s highest population growth rates. Their rights and choices are limited not just by poverty and a lack of services, but by overconsum­ption in other regions that is rapidly exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet. a simple answer of “fewer people ‘’ would not address these issues, but opening opportunit­ies for women to plan their families, pursue education and income, gain affordable clean energy and use resources sustainabl­y would do so.

Women have always been denied rights and choices. and yet for many of us, wherever choice emerges, we take it and make it our own. and we will keep doing so. Over time, no amount of handwringi­ng or structural impediment will stop the momentum of choice. nor should it. We will have more harmonious societies and economies and a better balance with nature when people realise the right to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproducti­ve life, and enjoy every opportunit­y to do so, on terms that they alone define.

•Dr Kanem is

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