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Concerned about population growth? Solve it by centering the rights of women and girls 

Missie Thurston Apr 20, 2023

When I started working at Population Media Center, I had a lot to learn about population. Out of all the environmental organizations, publications, and conferences I had connected with – I couldn’t recall learning much about population growth. I soon realized that I needed to learn more about demography, economics, and complex mathematical projections.  

I naturally understood that global sustainability would depend in part on women’s rights. It’s not rocket science that the brilliance of our global women is desperately needed to address the challenges we face as a global community. And I already knew, on the individual level, that a little bit of money, education, and reproductive autonomy gives girls the ability to be girls instead of teen mothers. And those girls grow into empowered women who pursue dreams that come in all shapes and sizes.  

Learning about population started to connect these pieces. I realized that empowering women and girls also meant a direct correlation to fertility rates – and, in turn, that had a direct connection to planetary health and global sustainability. Once again, I was shown healthy people equals healthy planet – the two go hand in hand.

I also, unfortunately, had much to learn about how many horrific ways work on “population” has violated, harmed, and scarred people around the world. I had to learn about people who believe that population growth should be stopped – at all costs. They believe it’s too late or change is needed immediately, so they cannot rely on personal choice. And I had to learn about people who worked on “population” but have little regard for global sustainability and only care about stopping population growth among certain types of people, which is detrimental to our shared future 

Friends or colleagues will often ask me if I get tired of answering questions about where or how we work. They ask me if I get sick of addressing concerns about racism or cultural colonialism. I always answer “no.” I never get tired of these questions. In fact, I believe every person who comes across PMC, or any population-oriented organization, should ask these questions.  

It’s because of the human rights violations, racism, sexism and other evils done in the name of “population” that population has been removed from most global sustainability discussions. But population is a crucial piece of the global sustainability puzzle, and it’s a vibrant and profound piece at that. The rights of women and girls are centered in it. But there are imitations of this puzzle piece – and they are harmful. There are immoral, unethical, and harmful ways to work on population and they are centered in “population control.” 

Wrong Ways to Work On Population: Population Control 

There is a long history of unethical and condemnable human rights abuses that have been carried out in the name of population and family planning programs. PMC acknowledges these for what they are: horrific. That is why PMC does not support coercive approaches to stabilizing population – because they are inhumane.  

If you are unaware of the many human rights abuses that have happened in the name of population stabilization or family planning, it’s essential to know that they have happened worldwide, and unfortunately, still happen today. 

We could visit Peru, where approximately 300,000 Peruvians, mostly women and most of them forced, were sterilized between 1990 and 2000s under the guise of a national family planning program. Or China, with the former one-child policy that stripped people of their bodily autonomy. Or the U.S., where numerous reports of forced sterilization in U.S. ICE detention centers continue to surface connecting to a long history of eugenics laws designed to sterilize marginalized populations.  

Unfortunately, this list can go on and on, but it boils down to: all coercive approaches to stabilizing population are horrific and need to stop immediately. But they will not stop unless people like you and me learn about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. So, please, I encourage you, ask questions of any group or government who is working in population. We need to understand what they are doing and how they are doing it. Only then can we start to dismantle these harmful practices and work towards a better, more sustainable future for everyone. 

Human Rights Enhancing Ways to Work on Population: Real Choice 

PMC stands against coercion – in all its forms. We vehemently condemn any population or family planning efforts that don’t advance reproductive health knowledge and create the conditions for informed, personal choice. We also stand against coercive pregnancy and pronatalism that we encounter continuously forcing women into having or keeping unwanted pregnancies. 

Enhancing human rights is the only way to stop population growth. PMC empowers people with information and resources to make the best decision for themselves and their families. An estimated 44% of births worldwide are unplanned and 22% are unwanted That’s why we focus on gender equality and family planning.  

Building global sustainability for today and for tomorrow all begins with the rights of women and girls. The right to education, economic independence, and reproductive autonomy are the building blocks and must-haves for self-determination. These three pieces open up real choice, giving every woman the ability to choose from multiple paths and pursue the one that best fits her dreams, talents, and aspirations. 

Focused on Impact

We inspire people, especially women and girls, to write their own life stories. We empower entire communities to build a healthier, more equitable and flourishing world for all. Imagine the exponential progress possible when we reach people on the most personal level, at scale, toward a goal we all share: an equitable, sustainable world.
Boat school in Bagladesh, children in a class seated at a lesson.
Pambazuko listeners were 1.4 times more likely to say they strongly agree that “Having a small family size will have less impact on the environment.”
Listeners in Burundi were 2 times more likely than non-listeners to know where they could obtain family planning methods.
Listeners in Nepal were 3 times more likely to believe girls should be encouraged to continue their education to higher levels.
Adolescent viewers of Vencer el Miedo were 1.8 times more likely to have used dual contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies.
View Full Impact

Unfortunately, societies all around the world still hold women down in one way or another – keeping them from reaching their full potential. Stopping child marriage is one key to empowering women and girls and ensuring they have a chance to receive an education. Flipping the script on these unfair dynamics is at the center of PMC’s work as we empower through entertainment and create a world that supports and celebrates the rights of women and girls.