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Forget population policies: give women choice and control

Indian schoolgirls

DFID under a Creative Commons Licence

With the international push for population growth to be addressed in the post-2015 development agenda, and the coercive population policies implemented in the past, there is a growing need to address the main underlying cause of high fertility rates in less-developed countries: the lack of empowerment of women and girls to exercise choice and control over their fertility.

The world’s population is predicted to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, with almost all of this growth occurring in developing countries. Governments across the world are seeking to slow the current rate of high fertility in developing countries.

As of 2013, 37 per cent of governments worldwide were seeking to reduce their current rate of population growth. The UN Population Fund has called for the integration of rapid population growth to be included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015 – whose aim will be to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development worldwide.

Unfortunately, government policies to address high fertility rates have tended to target the most disadvantaged and marginalized members of society, often with devastating consequences. Forced sterilizations on the poor in India between and 1975 and 1977 and on women of colour in the US in the 1970s were the result of such coercive government policies.

Yet education of women and girls has been shown to result in the voluntary reduction of fertility rates. Education gives women choices, opportunities and, most importantly, control. Under these conditions, women voluntarily reduce the number of children they bear over their life time as they participate and engage more actively with roles outside the home.

Educational attainment results in enhanced status, improved bargaining power and expanding freedom for women and girls. This can be seen in developed countries such as Australia, where population growth rates have diminished over time as levels of education among women has risen.

In India, improved education of women in the early 1970s resulted in voluntary fertility declines in the Indian state of Kerala. Kerala had a population density three times the average Indian state, but the state government invested in universal education and provided greater access to family planning and, by 1989, the fertility rates there had fallen to the second lowest in the country.

Kerala should remain a model for other countries seeking to lower their fertility rates. The more years of education a girl has, the fewer children she is likely to bear. The simple reality is that educated girls marry later. And for every year of schooling, their income increases by 10 to 25 per cent.

It is not just primary-level schooling that makes a positive impact. Secondary education offers an even better tool for empowering women and girls and reducing fertility rates. Research published in the Lancet found that if the proportion of girls in secondary education in 65 less developed countries (LDCs) was doubled (with rates currently at 19 per cent), the fertility rates would drop from 5.3 to 3.9 children per woman.

Many girls are prevented from continuing their schooling due to a lack of access to secondary education in developing countries. Domestic responsibilities, menstruation, negative attitudes towards female education, forced marriage and poverty are some of the biggest barriers.

Reducing rapid population growth and high fertility rates does not lie in population policies or coercive measures, but in the ability of governments worldwide to recognize the power of educating their country’s women and girls.

Lana Groves is a student at Central Queensland University and is a Global Voices delegate to the current United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi.

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