Population Matters

Women’s rights & health

Women’s rights & health

Women’s rights

Women continue to suffer from discrimination in many countries, including from child and early marriage, forced marriage, violence and barriers to participation in education and employment. Sexual and reproductive rights and women’s equality are interdependent; both are necessary for the smaller families required for a sustainable future.


Women are disadvantaged in relation to men in most, if not all, countries. In certain cases, this results in limited access to education, which, when combined with a traditionally subordinate status, limits women’s opportunities to develop independent economic roles or achieve positions of authority within society.

Worldwide, one in four young women were child brides
Worldwide, one in four young women were child brides

Traditions of early marriage further reduce opportunities for education, autonomy and authority. Early marriage typically leads to larger families and can also result in greater prevalence of maternal death and injury related to childbirth and in additional difficulties in bringing up children. Following marriage, a woman’s lack of economic independence coupled with patriarchal traditions means that her ability to determine the number and spacing of children may be limited.

Women are also vulnerable to violence and sexual assault, both within and outside marriage, further reducing their ability to play a full and independent role and potentially leading to unintended pregnancy. In situations of conflict, rape can even become a deliberate and systematic “weapon of war”.

Equality and empowerment

For environmental and sustainability reasons, as well as for reasons of equity and natural justice, we strongly support gender equality and the empowerment of women. These include:

Girls in a classroom

  • ensuring full participation of girls and women in education;
  • allowing full participation of women in personal and family decisions — especially those relating to childbearing;
  • discouraging teenage marriages, which can prevent women establishing themselves in a profession or career;
  • granting women full equality under the law and in property rights;
  • ensuring businesses run by women have access to financing and government support; and
  • providing accessible childcare to enable women to continue working.

We believe the evidence shows that empowered women typically choose to have smaller families.

Read more about women’s rights.

Women’s health

Poor reproductive health is a leading cause of death and illness for women in developing countries. While family planning services are improving, they remain inadequate. In the West, unintended pregnancies remain common while sex education and family planning are under threat from social conservatives and funding restrictions.

Unmet need

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that more than 200 million women worldwide have an unmet need for modern contraception. Women of reproductive age (15 – 49) are considered to be in need of contraception if they or their partner are using no method of contraception but are sexually active and do not want a child in the next two years or at all, or identify their current pregnancy as unintended.

Delivering contraceptive services in Africa

Through our PopOffsets project, Population Matters helps the work of Chase Africa in supporting the delivery of contraceptive services in Kenya

An unmet need may be because the woman or her partner cannot access contraception or because, even where it is formally available, take-up and use are limited by the degree of cultural acceptance, the level of female empowerment, affordability or problems with distribution. This means many people have much larger families than the global average, with some countries averaging five or six children per woman. In some places, high infant mortality rates can contribute to higher birth rates because parents have more children to compensate.

Contraception is only one element of a general lack of reproductive health services. Half a million women die each year during pregnancy and childbirth — this is equivalent to four full jumbo jets crashing every day.

Lack of funding

After a number of years of reduced international support, United States government funding of reproductive health programmes in developing countries has resumed. However, funding remains below the required level. One reason is that the necessary response to the AIDS crisis has resulted in the diversion of funds previously used for family planning and maternal health programmes.

Woman receiving family planning services

In the developed world, although most parents have one, two or three children, unintended pregnancy still remains an issue — particularly in the United States and United Kingdom. Government programmes have been instigated, such as promoting more reliable long-acting reversible contraceptives, but, as yet, results have been limited.

Access to reproductive health services, including contraception, is central to slowing, halting and reversing population growth.

Population, health, environment

Communities in poorer areas face multiple challenges. One is poor health caused by a combination of poor living conditions, lack of nourishment and clean water and poor or absent healthcare. Another challenge is depleted natural resources caused by exploitation by local communities and outside interests. Growing populations exacerbate all of these problems.

Small boy suffering from poverty and malnutrition

Addressing only one of these issues is rarely sufficient. Aid agencies have instead had some success with multifaceted interventions. The Population Health Environment approach addresses all of three issues at the same time. The healthcare element improves well-being and significantly reduces child mortality. The environment element seeks to introduce sustainable farming, harvesting, fishing and hunting approaches, which conserves ecosystems and habitats for the long term benefit of both wildlife and local communities. Finally, the population element underpins progress in the other two areas by providing family planning supplies, education and support to enable women to determine the number and timing of their pregnancies, improving both the women’s health and ability to work and reducing population growth.

Arising from Integrated Conservation and Development Programmes in the late 1980s, a key enabler is consulting and involving all sectors of the communities in question to ensure their informed consent to and support for the programme. Successful programmes have been demonstrated in countries as diverse as Ecuador, Cambodia, the Philippines, Kenya, Tanzania and Madagascar.

Read more about contraception and lack of reproductive health.

Next: Conflict & migration