woman at radio station

A free choice to have children

We welcome the fact that Population is again a subject of debate in the Netherlands. In recent months, the media focussed regularly on population growth in Africa, mostly in relation to the flow of refugees to Europe and to regional instability. We did, however, miss attention to an issue that is at the core of population growth: the lack of reproductive Freedom of Choice, i.e. the freedom to choose when, with whom and how many children one would like to have. That is why we call out for Freedom of Choice for all!

Happy African Woman with BabyPeople - mostly women -in developing countries often have limited influence over the number of children they have. They consequently often have families that are larger than they wish and can maintain financially. Mothers with large families therefore cannot generate an income and their children are unable to receive good education. The number of young people in some developing countries is so high that economic growth cannot keep up. As a result, the growth does not lead to prosperity for all.

Population growth in Africa

Whilst the number of children born per woman is decreasing on a global level, fertility rates in Africa are still high. Dutch women have 1.7 children on average, while Somali women have 6.6. The highest rate, however, can be found in Niger: on average 7.6 births per woman. This results in population  growth that even a prosperous country such as the Netherlands could not handle. Population growth in these countries will continue for some time to come because the population is young and therefore fertile. The UN expects that Africa’s population will double in size from 1.2 to 2.4 billion between now and 2050, with one billion young people under 18 years old. How can we offer all of these young people the prospect of a dignified existence with social security, a paid job and  hope for the future?

Economic growth rates in many African countries are impressive. However, in many countries this growth often lies on weak foundation, such as dependency on natural resources. Successes in other regions, such as the Asian Tigers in the ‘90s, show that sustainable economic growth requires at least three elements: education, youth employment and a diminishing population growth. Through less growth the relative share of the labour force will increase: when this coincides with education and jobs it results in an enormous economic impulse, although of temporary nature.

Importance of education and contraceptives

A lower population growth cannot and should not be a goal in itself. Every individual has the right to determine their preferred family size. And there lies the challenge: Many people in Africa are not able to take part in family planning because of a lack of sexual education and contraceptives. Moreover, the number of children per family is often determined by external factors, such as gender inequality and cultural or religious pressure to have children. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are therefore of great importance. This is why it is one of the key issues of the Dutch government in relation to development cooperation. Of course people with Freedom of Choice still have the right to choose to have large families. However, the reality is that Freedom of Choice results in smaller families because women want their children to have a good future.

An estimated 225 million women worldwide badly need  effective implementation of rights and services is ,  but they are denied access. This means that two out of five pregnancies is unwanted. This can and needs to be changed. Policymakers often do not recognize the fact that investing in women and reproductive health make sense economically. Research has shown that every dollar spent on family planning can result in between nine and 31 dollars in savings on health, education, housing and social services. Measures to solve access are moreover limited by prejudice, discrimination and lack of interest.

Key to socio-economic growth

Estimations show that worldwide population growth will diminish because of declining birth rates. The total global population will actually stabilise. However, this is not the case yet. Let us make sure that everyone on earth has access to information and contraceptives and the freedom to decide for themselves. This is one of the keys to socio-economic growth and regional stability. Freedom of choice improves the health and well-being of women and their families, and reduces population growth – which also is advantageous from a climate point of view.

Access to information and rights is not only a woman’s right, above all a human right.

Dianda Veldman
Managing Director Rutgers

Kitty van der Heijden
Managing Director Europe, World Resources Institute
(She wrote this in a personal capacity.)

This is the English translation of an opinion article that will be published soon in a Dutch national newspaper (NRC Handelsblad) for World Population Day (11 July 2015)