Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Seeing the Forrest: Population, Development, and Women’s Self-Determination

In a recent New York Times article, Elisabeth Rosenthal addresses the population crisis occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa, where population in many areas far exceeds resources. This rampant population growth has predictably disastrous consequences: substandard living conditions, congestion, rampant unemployment, drains on infrastructure and natural resources (including food and water supply), and, in some areas, immigration concerns.

Rosenthal specifically cites the case of Nigeria, which has seen its population balloon in the last quarter-century to 300 million people despite the spatial and economic limitations of the country. Nigeria contributes to a trend of overall population increase in sub-Saharan Africa, where, in many countries, women often average more than 5 children. Experts state that it growth within this region that is largely accountable for the world population recently exceeding 7 billion.

This is in stark contrast to “developing” countries* in Asia and Latin America, which have seen birth rates stabilize at the expert-sanctioned 2 children per family after years of intensive policy prescriptions aimed at lowering fertility. What is note-worthy, is that most of these interventions are directed at improving women's opportunities and choices.  As the world has learned, when women are educated, afforded some degree of self-determination, and have access to contraceptives and reproductive healthcare, the birth rate drastically decreases and standard of living increases.

Now, it should be noted that attempts to lower the birth rate by these means have been erratic in much of sub-Saharan Africa due to the cultural importance placed on large families, among other factors.  Additionally, I do not want to suggest that population policies have always been innocuous or even well-intentioned. Unfortunately, there have been many instances of cultural insensitivity, exploitation, and unintended consequences in this field. What I think is important to acknowledge is that (1) population growth is a serious problem with real effects on development, and (2) women's autonomy and self-determination is inextricably linked with development.

This last point is especially important as it is common to view women’s rights and “women’s issues” in a vacuum, without connecting them to the health and well-being of all humans.  The forgotten truth is that even though women are marginalized across the world, they are not a minority.  Women constitute half the population and, therefore, any issue that affects women, affects everyone.

Related, anything which empowers women, empowers all people.  When women are gainfully employed, the overall productivity of a nation has the potential to increase.  When girls have access to the same educational resources as boys, their knowledge can be used towards the betterment of society.  When women take leadership roles, organizations and states benefit by better representing the wants and needs of all constituents.

And when women are given full access to reproductive information and choice, they often choose to have smaller family sizes-- beginning a reactionary chain that can improve the living conditions of an entire nation.  The choice to have fewer children places less of a burden on individual women, who are often primary care-takers.  It places less of a burden on the family unit, which must provide for children with a finite amount of resources.   Finally, it places less of a burden on society, and, going one step further, can actually promote economic growth for a country.   As Rosenthal explains, when population growth is carefully balanced, and the number of young working people relative to dependent groups, like seniors or children, is large, economic productivity can sharply increase due to the available workforce.

If our society wants to affect this kind of macro-level change (economic growth and development), we need to start by perceiving and addressing micro-level problems (like family planning).  We need to see that women’s rights--- along with racial justice, labor rights, environmental issues, healthcare, criminal justice, and the host of other things that fall under the umbrella of “social issues”--- are not separate from or peripheral to global economic development, but deeply intertwined in it.  It is only by seeing the connections among systems, levels, and people, that we can truly begin to address our social ills and improve the global standard of living.  

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