As world welcomes '7 billionth baby,' UN says empowering women is key to stability
The '7 billionth baby' was officially born today, the United Nations estimates. Key to stabilizing that rapid population growth – and creating a sustainable future – is closing the gender gap and empowering women.
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Education "has a tremendous return [in] all the things that change family size and improve the distribution of resources," Bruce says. "A woman who educates her children sets in process reduced fertility" – fewer, better-cared-for children.Skip to next paragraph
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Of the Millennium Development Goals set forth by the UN in 2000, expanding education for women is the one where the world has made the most progress, Mr. Osotimehin says. A high school education is now widely accepted as the minimum a girl should have.
If marriage and childbearing are delayed just five years in the least developed countries, until after adolescence, this would lead to 224 million fewer children born by 2050, according to Population Council data. That would represent a 39 percent reduction in how much the UN expects the population to increase by 2050.
Modernization also plays a critical role. A glimpse of better living options typically spurs people to improve their lot in life. The effect of this is evident in Western Europe, where population growth is at a virtual standstill, Mr. Demeny says.
People rapidly adjust their plans for large families as they realize that children are expensive to raise.
"The basic pressure of conflict between striving for a better standard of living and raising four, five, six children will result in a natural adjustment in fertility rates," Demeny says.
Among city dwellers, particularly couples who are better educated, the average number of children drops by a considerable margin, he says. With more than half the world now living in cities, according to the UN report, that trend has considerable implications for easing population growth.
Challenge to planet's resources
But even if fertility rates begin declining more rapidly, population growth is "certain" because of the vast number of young people who are entering their childbearing years, says Jose Miguel Guzman, chief of the population and development branch at UNFPA. According to the UN report, people under the age of 24 make up 43 percent of the world population today, and, according to Mr. Guzman, almost 48 percent of the population in developing countries.
The proportion of young people in developing countries is likely to continue increasing at least until 2050, he says. The biggest challenge posed by the boom in the youth population – which, according to Guzman, will not stabilize until 2100, at about 30 percent of the world population – will be to ensure that young people have sufficient economic and educational opportunities, Osotimehin says.
Concerns about supplies of food and energy have raised questions of whether the Earth is approaching its carrying capacity – the number of humans it can support.
The good news? Human ingenuity – technological advances, enlightened government policies – have a significant impact.
"With the population we have, we've already experienced some pressure," Guzman says. But "what happens in the future depends on the action we take today."
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