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Women, education and reproductive rights

There has been an enormous increase in the number of young people in the developing world. Millions of reproductively active people receive insufficient assistance or guidance on health, sexuality and reproduction. Consequently this will accelerate growth in an already overpopulated developing world, unless urgent action is taken.

The education and empowerment of women is vital in reducing poverty and overpopulation. The health and size of the population is related to our behaviour and, in particular, the behaviour of women. Knowledge and skills will enable women to find work and earn money. Economically independent women tend to have fewer children, and these children are inclined to be healthier and better educated.

Better results have been achieved when governments and NGOs target women in developing countries and invest greater effort in their education. Money given to a poor woman is more likely to be utilised for the nutrition and health of the family. Women that have been given the opportunity to earn an income, have put the money to better use. When more effort has been put into improving the health of women, this has had the effect of benefiting the children. The education of women is a major factor in stabilising human population numbers.

At present, there are insufficient numbers of schools or healthcare facilities in many developing countries. For example, in parts of Africa only 56% of people are literate and only 5% receive high school or secondary education. If these children are better educated, they may become more environmentally aware and take steps to conserve natural resources. There is also the probability that they will receive some form of education about birth control and the rights of women.

It is important that children in developing countries have better health care than is currently available. If women are assured that their children’s chances of survival are similar to those in developed countries, they may be less likely to have more children.

Reproductive Rights pie chart

Approximately 70% of women use some kind of contraception. In some countries and in particular in rural areas there is no access to anything except traditional methods. These may be unreliable and sometimes dangerous.

Reproductive health involves safe and satisfying sex, along with the freedom and ability to reproduce within personal economic and health constraints.

In the majority of cultures, there is an unequal gender imbalance in favour of men. In the area of reproductive health, traditionally men have had the greatest influence over the use of contraception and the timing of sex. Therefore men must also be targeted for reproductive health education programs. More significantly, the status of women needs to be raised to give them more say in their relationships and greater reproduction rights. Given that the majority of the world's political leaders are men, changing the gender imbalance will be a challenge.

Empowering women will necessitate changing laws and deeply held religious and cultural values. Women need to assert their rights if they are to gain control over the number and spacing of their children. Improved rights will assist in preventing intimidation and violence by men against women who do not wish to conceive, and reduce pregnancy as a result of rape.

Women have generally tended to embrace environmental values more rapidly than men. If more women were involved in the management of society, we would rapidly move towards a sustainable world.

Reasons for high birth rates

  • Economic - Increasing population is partly caused by people living longer due to improved food, health care and sanitation. In poor communities, children are needed as both a source of labour and to care for their elderly parents. Parents are inclined to produce more children in anticipation that some will die before reaching adulthood.

  • Cultural - In some cultures, great prestige is gained from having several sons, and parents are urged to continue producing children until they have more male heirs. In some countries, women do not possess the right to determine the number and spacing of their children. Also, women do not have control over economic resources. For example, in Namibia, Botswana and Chile, women are not allowed to manage property. In many countries, marriage and child-bearing is common to such an extent that women who never marry receive little or no recognition and have little or no social status.

  • Religious - Islam only permits birth control in specific situations, i.e. when the health of the mother or the child is at risk, if a married couple wish to delay having children until they are in a better position to care for them, or if the couple wish to have longer intervals between each child. The Roman Catholic Church is more extreme: whilst many bishops had more liberal attitudes towards birth control, in 1968, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical which prohibited the use of contraceptives. The current Pope, Benedict XVI, continues to maintain this policy. Among protestant Christians, many fundamentalist or conservative groups advocate celibacy as the sole means of birth control.

  • Lack of education - Illiteracy in developing countries is a contributing factor. An estimated 960 million people are illiterate, with two-thirds being women. It has been shown that educated women have fewer children.

Examples of population control programmes

(1) Unsuccessful population control

The world's second most populous country is India, with a population of 1 billion in 2000. However, India has not had a comprehensive birth control programme. Previously it relied upon female sterilisation, despite the fact that the surgery involved was more complex and riskier for women than it was for men. More recently, its approach involves the promotion of educational, social and economic advancement for women.

It is to be expected that India will surpass China as the world's most populous country by 2040. On average, Indian women give birth to three or four children. It is not uncommon for women to have eight children and for half of them to die in the first few years. Although multiple pregnancies can be life-threatening, women can be pressured by their husbands and in-laws to have many sons since they are highly esteemed in Indian society.

(2) Successful population control

The world's most populous country is China, which had a population of 1.2 billion in 2000. This is expected to reach 1.4 billion by 2010, and it would probably be about 1.9 billion, were it not for China's one-child birth control policy. This policy is not strictly one child, as parents who are themselves an only child are allowed to have more children after a gap of four years. The policy also advocates delaying marriage and giving birth. The Chinese government introduced this controversial programme in 1979, due to concerns that the population would ultimately outstrip the availability of farming land, water and other natural resources.

This programme has been criticised as a violation of human rights and there has been an increase in female infanticide. Others have questioned the policing of the programme, where female babies are often adopted or births are unregistered. Some suggest that the policy of delayed marriage has achieved more in reducing the birth rate. However, it has also provided more opportunities for women to enter paid employment, and subsequently improve their standard of living. Furthermore parents can afford a better education for a single child.

Abortion Policies map


Increased education for women may convey a greater awareness of family planning options and techniques, but the underlying problem in many developing countries is the lack of gender equality. Women are considered to be naturally inferior, and hence education is unnecessary for them. Their inability to earn their own income, and thus have some degree of independence, compounds this situation. In Bangladesh, the International Planned Parenthood Federation [IPPF] attempted to address this problem with several methods including programs to bring economic empowerment to women, creating awareness of birth control methods and establishing reproductive health clinics.

In male-dominated cultures, men determine whether or not to use contraceptives and when to have sex. In these particular cases, population control is most effective when men are targeted in addition to women. For example, in Kenya the IPPF conducted a program to alter men's attitudes towards women.

Governmental birth control programmes may be hindered by religious or cultural factors. For example, in an intensely Catholic country such as the Philippines the IPPF worked to alter the reasoning of the government that had feared a reaction from voters.

Research by the World Bank has revealed that the poorest countries have the greatest gender inequality. The governments of these countries must reform their legal and institutional systems to encourage equality for women. This may involve land reforms to enable women to own land, and financial reforms to give women access to capital, and lowering the cost of education. They must also introduce affirmative action programs.

If more women are in governmental positions, it will ensure that there is a greater emphasis upon gender equality and birth control programs. This may take many years to reach fruition. In the shorter term, more finance must be invested by the developed world. The IPPF is a voluntary organisation, with a limited budget, that relies upon governmental and private donations. Unfortunately, Western governments are slow to provide financial assistance to developing countries. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population Development in Cairo, governments agreed to allocate $17 billion annually by 2000. To date, developed nations have allocated less than 50 percent of the finance that was guaranteed. The U.S. has the world’s largest economy, and must contribute US$2 billion annually towards reproductive health programs, whilst in reality the U.S. currently contributes only $500 million. This shortfall has been blamed on the influence of fundamentalist Christians in the White House.

What you can do

Write to your government representatives, asking that they contribute more funds toward international programmes for slowing population growth.

Support groups that are working on birth control educational programs, and working on the education and empowerment of women.

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