World Population Day, celebrated annually on 11 July, focuses on increasing people’s awareness of population issues, including the importance of gender equality, family planning, poverty and maternal health.
While reproductive rights appeared for the first time in a United Nations (UN) document fifty years ago, modern contraception remains out of reach for millions worldwide. To create greater awareness of the impact of population issues such as these, World Population Day was instituted in 1989. It followed the Day of Five Billion on 11 July 1987: the estimated day on which world population size rose above five billion.
Today, the human numbers have grown beyond seven billion. As population keeps expanding, the world is confronted with conflict, inequality and natural disasters that are exacerbated by climate change. In 2015, more than 60 million people were forced to flee their homes. This means that one in 122 humans are displaced. Numbers of refugees fleeing their country of origin are soaring, but the number of internally displaced people is even higher.
“With nearly 60 million individuals having fled conflict or disaster, women and adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. Violent extremists and armed groups are committing terrible abuses that result in trauma, unintended pregnancy and infection with HIV and other diseases.”
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states above, women are disproportionally affected by conflict and disaster. Their generally disadvantaged position in society makes them vulnerable. Women are more likely to face poverty, lack of access to education and employment, and are often involuntarily reduced to a reproductive role. It is estimated that one in five women of childbearing age in crisis is pregnant. Poor access to reproductive health services places them at great risk. Additionally, many couples want to avoid pregnancy in times of crisis, but lack the means to do so.
In spite of this, and the horrible reality that 15 million girls annually are forced into marriage before the age of 18, there is also hope for a better future. Globally, the number of schools in which equal numbers of boys and girls attend has increased by three quarters since 2000, Nepal has reduced its maternal mortality by the same proportion since the early 1990s, and the position of women in Tunisia has improved remarkably since the Arab Spring.
Population Matters sees these small victories as a sign that calling for the empowerment of women, improved family planning facilities and better sex and reproductive health education in school makes a difference. It is not simply a human right to have access to these services: they are also the key towards smaller populations. Smaller families are a necessary condition for long-term poverty alleviation, reduced conflict and sustainable development.