Population Matters

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The first official “zero” draft of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) document has been published. The goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire at the end of this year. The MDGs, which have provided a focal point for development since 2000, have been criticised for being too narrow and only for applying targets to developing countries. The SDGs are intended to expand the objectives to all nations using a wider framework of 17 core goals broken down into 169 targets, which will direct the global plan of action for the next 15 years.

Women carrying water

Inclusivity and equality are key themes throughout the zero draft, reflecting a pledge that nobody will be left behind. Goal five focuses on gender equality and is intended to help empower all women and girls. Targets elucidate how this would be achieved through tackling early, child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation and violence against women, and providing reproductive rights and universal access to sexual and reproductive health. We celebrate the emphasis that has been placed on women’s rights for many reasons — child marriage, for example, has a negative impact on girls’ education, public health and population growth.

Target 5.6 is intended to help ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services by 2030. While not one of the 17 core goals, this target is key to achieving all of the SDGs. The potential for widespread environmental and social effects is enormous as currently, according to a study published in The Lancet, approximately 233 million women globally have an unmet need for modern family planning.

The focus on access to contraception marks a shift in approach from population control towards empowering individuals to make choices about their family size. Providing women with the ability to control their fertility has important implications for global population growth and would contribute greatly to a shift to a more sustainable population size.


While concern about population size is implicit in many of the SDGs, it is not referenced explicitly at any point in the zero draft. This is striking. We believe that broader issues related to population growth also must be addressed explicitly. No government should prevent people from choosing the size of their family, but explicit references to environmental considerations would help to empower people to make informed decisions.

Several of the goals are focused on consumption, reflecting aims to mitigate the environmental pressures of expanding cities and reduce energy, water and food consumption.

Between now and September, the SDG proposals will be debated by government officials of many countries. An explicit global population target most likely will not be included in the final draft of the SDGs document and there is a danger that the references to gender equality and reproductive rights will be reduced in number or even removed altogether because some officials object to them. So, pressure to address these key issues must be sustained.

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