Sometime within the last day or so, it's estimated that the world's 7 billionth child was born. This child, like all children, was gestated in the body of a woman and like most children, is likely to be fed, bathed, and raised primarily by a woman. Whether the world that the child inhabits as he or she grows up is one of Utopian stability or nightmarish Orwellian permanent war and famine depends largely on the choices available to the world's women, and, more specifically, their access to reproductive health.
Yes, contrary to what the Quiverfull movement would have you believe, the road to global happiness and peace isn't a house full of prairie-haired children doing chores for their perpetually pregnant mom while Jim Bob declares the whole operation a tax exempt church; the United Nations believes that the linchpin in the quest for an end to global suffering lies in giving women the right to control when and how many children they have.
I spoke with Maureen Greenwood-Basken, the Director of Policy Initiatives in the United Nations Foundation's Women & Population program, about what a global population of 7 billion means to women. She explained that ballooning populations disproportionately affect a society's female members; as resources become strained in families, often women suffer first, as many cultures dictate that mothers take care of the men and children before feeding themselves. In addition to putting strains on the world's food supply, the more mouths there are to feed, the greater the strain on the family's resources. The more gigantic families the world has to support, the thinner resources must be spread. It therefore stands to reason that as women have access to safe, effective contraception, family sizes shrink, everyone's health improves, and there's more to go around. Simple, right?
Not quite. Many women who would like to have access to birth control can't get it; according to the Guttmacher Institute, 215 million women globally can't access that which would allow them to exert some form or reproductive control over their own bodies. While some lack of access is the result of a lack of resources, much of this stems from local cultural attitudes that value women for their reproductive qualities, and not much else.
Greenwood-Basken says that in those places, international organizations have promoted female empowerment by working with male community and religious leaders by shining light on the negative effects of the status quo. One such successful program in India involved men and boys in discouraging domestic violence in their community. Other initiatives seek to educate women from a young age, as educated women tend to opt for voluntary birth control and have fewer children, and the children that they do have are healthier.
Despite pervasive challenges, Greenwood-Basken believes we're on the right track, pointing out that there are more programs and initiatives available for women now than there's ever been. Additionally, according to a September 2010 Harris poll, a full 91% of Americans believe that women deserve access to safe, effective contraception.
What kind of world will we inhabit by the time the 8 billionth baby is born in 2025? That depends. How much are we willing to trust women?