Happy World Population Day! Sex Ed and Family Planning Means Healthier Women and Children

In 1989, the United Nations Development Programme named July 11 World Population Day—an annual reminder that issues around population lead to aggravated pollution, the overuse of natural resources, water shortages and poverty, among other things. Improving access to family planning education and services is intimately related to addressing overpopulation, but as we celebrate the 25th World Population Day, 222 million women in the developing world and many in the developed world lack access to necessary reproductive health care.

Without family planning, women often have more children in a shorter amount of time, making it more difficult to acquire necessary food, water, education and other resources, explained Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a blog post. These shortages then augment poverty, natural resource abuse and pollution. The relationship between these issues was further discussed by five speakers in a Google Hangout hosted by the Sierra Club today.

The speakers noted that not only does family planning improve women’s and children’s quality of life, it improves a woman’s ability to work with her community and address issues such as resource conservation.

“Because of poor maternal health, women weren’t really able to engage in issues related to the community,” said Vik Mohan, director of the community health program for the conservation group Blue Ventures. He focused on the impact of family planning education and services in a rural community in southwest Madagascar, explaining that prior to Blue Ventures’ work in the community, women would have to walk 50 km through forests to reach a clinic in a nearby town. As a result, women often had more children than they desired, and the population growth led to unsustainable fishing and the collapse of the fisheries.

In 2007, Blue Ventures opened a reproductive health clinic, and on its opening day, Mohan said, 20 percent of all women of reproductive age in the community came to the clinic seeking contraception. Over the course of six years, training women to be community health workers, improving access to contraception and midwives and other initiatives have led to a 45 percent drop in the birthrate and a 45 percent increase in women using contraception.

As a result, Mohan noted that women felt more empowered to discuss and work on overfishing in the community and began taking a greater interest in conservation and biodiversity efforts. Men also became more interested in family planning.

A. Tianna Scozzaro, a population and climate associate for Population Action International, also noted the relationship between improving access to family planning and addressing community-wide food shortages in Malawi. She described a mother of eight who lived on an island in the center of a lake. The family subsisted on reeds from wetlands and often faced food insecurity and poor nutrition due to droughts. Without family planning, she would not be able to provide enough food for her children, and having more children would simultaneously burden local resources necessary for the growth of the entire community.

Family planning is “something that is so deeply personal and valuable to a woman and family, [and] is ultimately something [the woman in Malawi] recognizes is critical to the lake, the forests and the climate and planet,” Scozzaro said.

The panelists also related the importance of improving family planning access to this year’s theme for World Population Day—investment in “the largest-ever generation of youth.” They noted that young women are often the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach members of the population.

For example, in Madagascar, Mohan noted a majority of women have children before the age of 18, and Stacie Murphy, a policy associate for Population Connection, explained that the largest causes of death for women between the ages of 15 and 19 in the developing world are pregnancy and childbirth.

They noted that these issues could be mitigated through improved sexual education and increased access to contraception and reproductive services—both of which many women currently cannot access. Over 50 percent of adolescent women in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia and almost 40 percent of adolescent women in Latin America and the Caribbean who would like to avoid pregnancy report they do not have access to contraception.

“If we can reduce very young marriage and very young child-bearing for these women, that gives them a shot at a whole other kind of life,” Murphy said.

The same holds true for the United States, where adolescents ages 15 to 24 account for only one-quarter of the sexually active population but account for nearly one-half of those diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections each year. Additionally, the U.S. has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the developed world. Both of these issues can be addressed through better sexual education and more affordable, less stigmatized access to contraception.

Murphy said the U.S. should contribute $1 billion each year to address access to family planning services in the developing world. Such an investment would meet the needs of the 222 million women unable to access reproductive services and would only cost about $3 per U.S. taxpayer each year. U.S. legislators must also do a better job of meeting the needs of those living in this country. Recent legislation—including the Hobby Lobby decision and its aftermath, as well as the increase in the number of abortion restrictions—is severely limiting the ability of women to care for their own sexual health.

“Everyone on the planet has an absolute right to determine the number, the spacing and the timing of their children,” Murphy said. “The United States has both a moral and a practical obligation to do what it takes to meet that need. It’s in everyone’s benefit to do so.”

Photo of global fertility rates courtesy Population Connection


Margaret Nickens is a senior at Brown University and an intern with Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.