Deep Connections: Women’s Rights & The Rights of Other Species to Exist

In the spring of 2017, two Population Media Center Program Advisory Board members, and a long-time friend of PMC, published an important article in the prestigious magazine, Science. The title of their effort was “The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection.

In their paper, the expert trio pointed out that attaining high standards of human welfare and ensuring the long-term health of the natural world are foundational goals of sustainable development. However, the already enormous food needs of over 7.5 billion human beings strongly imply that ongoing population growth will undermine protection of the remaining natural world as we head further into the 21st century. Remember, human population grows by over 9,000 people per hour and over 1.5 million people per week.

A contributing solution? Aggressive pursuit and realization of the human-rights of women and girls.

“An important approach to sustaining biodiversity and human well-being is through actions that can slow and eventually reverse population growth: investing in universal access to reproductive health services and contraceptive technologies, advancing women’s education, and achieving gender equality,” was how the authors, Eileen Crist, Bob Engelman, and Camilo Mora, put it.

Population Media Center agrees. Not only is modern family planning one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, it is also widely recognized as a fundamental human right. So is education. And so are women’s rights.

As the paper progresses, the authors recount how the population issue became marginalized in both popular consciousness and even in scientific circles through the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. However, the well-reported breaching of 7 billion people in October 2011 created new awareness of the demographic pressures piling on the planet – especially as it relates to food production.

The production and trade of soybeans serves to illustrate the point. On the basis of present trends, one agribusiness study estimated that by 2024, Chinese soybean demand could outstrip the current soybean production of the United States, Brazil, and Argentina combined. How such demand, a reflection of growing meat consumption in only one developing nation, can be met without conversion of more forested or other uncultivated lands is unclear.

In terms of biodiversity conservation, human-induced stressors, including agricultural expansion, continue to drive extinctions, wild species population declines, and habitat destruction. Meanwhile, the once clear dichotomy between the global North and the global South is “becoming outmoded by the growth of a global consumer class, which has increased by hundreds of millions of people in the past two decades and will grow by billions in the decades ahead.” This shifting economic profile of the global population portends vastly increased material and food consumption.

Importantly, the authors emphasize that extending the carrying capacity for people over the last century has succeeded largely by means of usurping resources from other species. For example, “the transformation of the American plains for food production wiped out 99% of the grasslands biome along with the great diversity of plants, animals, and other organisms that constituted it.”

While the paper argues strongly for greatly expanding protected areas as a conservation strategy, and documents the dire status of current global biodiversity trends, it rightly pushes the envelope and sets out a progressive plan of action to address the population variable as a conservation tactic:

Wherever human rights promoting policies to lower fertility rates have been implemented, birth rates have declined within a generation or two. Policies include prominent public discourse on the issue; prioritizing the education of girls and women; establishing accessible and affordable family planning services; provisioning modern contraceptive methods through diverse outlets; deploying health workers for grassroots education and support; making counseling for couples available; eliminating governmental incentives for large families; and making sexuality education mandatory in school curricula.

The authors warn that deceleration of global population growth will not serve as a “silver bullet” to stave off biodiversity destruction: we need action on a host of issues. For example, efficiency gains and conservation in energy and materials use, drastically reducing the production of throwaway and rapidly obsolescing products, and abolishing destructive subsidies such as those that encourage fossil fuel production and over-fishing.

However, progressively addressing global population growth will help – while simultaneously strengthening human rights, especially those for women and children. Human population size and future dynamics are powerful forces that are eminently amenable to positive change.

“In our efforts to halt the extinction crisis and to bequeath a biodiverse planet to future generations, willingness to marshal the resources and deploy proven tactics to address the population question is crucial,” the trio concludes.

What is crucial to remember, though, is that all these issues are inter-related. Just as the great conservationist, John Muir, stated long ago: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

When women and girls have low social status – in some situations they are considered mere property – family sizes are often controlled by husbands or in-laws. Unsurprisingly, family size then ends up being larger than if women could truly decide for themselves how many children to have and when. Add in fear-inducing rumors, myths, and social taboos against the use contraception in many parts of the world and the resulting injustice is not surprising: disenfranchised women and girls and rapid global population growth.

By strengthening the human rights and social status of women and girls around the world — including girls’ education and the expansion of choice around family planning information and services — global population will stabilize and start a gradual decline sooner rather than later. No doubt the natural world will applaud this, as will those benefiting from strengthened human health and rights.

PMC’s entertaining dramas can address these issues directly. For example, Ruwan Dare (“Midnight Rain”) was a 208-episode radio serial drama that aired in four northern states of Nigeria from July 31, 2007 through July 18, 2009. PMC surveys indicated that the program reached more than 12 million people.

At baseline survey, the mean desired number of children for all respondents was 7.43 (females 7.71, males 7.03), which decreased significantly to 5.93 by the endline survey, most notably among females (females 5.39, males 6.96). The likelihood of respondents saying they did not want to have another child was 5.7 times greater at endline compared to baseline, and listeners were nearly two times as likely as non-listeners to think that “people should plan how many children they have.”

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