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GLOBAL | summer 2002


Women's Wisdom
Population Experts Finally Get It

Ms. Summer 2002

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When new UN population projections this spring predicted a billion fewer people born this century than previously estimated, the media seemed shocked. Even in countries where poverty and illiteracy are still widespread, population is declining. But feminist health advocates have always known that women who are afforded the right to decide about the size of their families, coupled with the resources to implement that decision, usually opt for fewer children.

Over the past two decades, women all over the world have become more conscious, skilled, and active about their reproductive health and rights. At the same time, governments and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) have invested in more widely available and better quality contraceptive services. Surveys from 20 developing countries indicate that the ideal number of children has dropped from an average of five to three in just 15 years.

Crowd of African womenThe 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo marked a paradigm shift when, after years of pressure from NGOs, governments agreed that women empowerment is key to progress. Instead of seeking ways for states to control women's fertility, 184 governments agreed on a strategy premised on individual rights. It recognized the value of educating women and improving their social and economic status important goals themselves but also keys to reducing fertility.

While the slowdown in population growth is a step in the right direction, it is not time to celebrate. Women in many countries still do not have access to the reproductive health services they need. Too many are controlling their fertility at enormous cost, by using contraceptives that are not suited to them or by relying on unsafe illegal abortion. And the threat of HIV/AIDS and infections from other sexually transmitted diseases requires protecting not only against pregnancy but also disease. Perhaps the greatest challenge is getting age appropriate reproductive health information and services to the generation coming of age right now.

Both girls and boys need education that fortifies self esteem, helps them understand their sexuality and their health, and teaches them how to build relationships and negotiate sex when they're ready. They also need easy access to contraceptives, especially condoms. But the Bush Administration is doing everything it can to make it impossible for adolescents and women to get these and other essential contraceptive services, both at home and abroad. One outrageous example is its refusal to release $34 million that Congress appropriated this year-and the President signed into law-to the United Nations Population Fund, the main source for family planning education and services in the developing world.

In holding up this money, President Bush is continuing a pattern of repressive international policies that began his first day of office with imposition of the global gag rule, forbidding any funds to support health services that offer abortion information. His actions pander to a minority in the U.S. who cry abortion but actually seek to eliminate all contraception except abstinence and the rhythm method. Now these extremists have jumped onto the demographic bandwagon, arguing that new projections prove the population problem is overblown, so we need not subsidize overseas contraceptive services. This kind of cockeyed reasoning should keep all of us from falling into complacency.