IT would seem to take a bit of a mental stretch to get from teaching a girl in Pakistan how to read to saving the global environment. But it's not that far at all if you accept that world population growth has an impact on pollution and the destruction of natural resources.
Here's how the reasoning goes: Provide a basic education for girls in poor countries and they are more likely to have greater economic opportunities. With greater economic security, they are less likely to grow up viewing children as old-age insurance or needed hands for subsistence living. They will therefore have fewer children, and the rate of population growth will decline along with the consequent impact on the environment.
It's part of a web: education, family planning services, economic help from richer countries, and above all a change in the traditional attitude that views women as subservient or of lesser worth.
The trends are not good.
World population today stands at something over 5 billion and is projected to double in about 40 years. More than 90 percent of that population growth will occur - is occurring at some 90 million people a year - in developing countries. And in many of these areas, merely finding enough to eat is getting tougher - especially for women, who do most of the subsistence farming.
``When they can no longer increase their own labor burdens, women lean more heavily on the contributions of their children - especially girls,'' researcher Jodi Jacobson has written for the Worldwatch Institute. ``In fact, the increasing tendency in many areas of keeping girls out of school to help with their mothers' work virtually ensures that another generation of females will grow up with poorer prospects than their brothers.''
That gender gap in prospects for the future is clearly shown in a recent report by Population Action International, a private research and advocacy group.
The organization ranked 112 countries by primary and secondary education of girls compared with boys. In 50 of those countries, it found that ``girls lag significantly behind boys in educational opportunity'' with 76 million fewer girls enrolled in school.
At the bottom of the list is Chad ``where fewer than one in 30 girls attend secondary school and where adult women have, on average, less than one month of education.'' Not surprisingly, the typical woman in Chad has six children.
The report also notes that ``of the 50 countries with significantly fewer girls than boys enrolled in school, all but five are located in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East - regions where the fertility rate (average number of children per woman) is two or three times higher than countries with a good record in educating girls.''
Closing the gender gap in education would not come cheap. Population Action International puts the price tag at $6.5 billion, but adds that even that ``would still leave enrollment for both boys and girls at very low levels.''
But what's the alternative? Continued grinding poverty for about 1 billion people (the poorest in the world); a population growth rate that is not sustainable, economically or environmentally; and treatment of women and girls that should not be tolerated.
In September, the United Nations will hold a conference on population and development. That meeting in Cairo (the first one of its kind in 10 years) will be followed in 1995 by the UN Conference on Women.
Population is a touchy subject among nations. It gets tied up with controversial family planning issues like providing contraceptives and abortion services, and it relates to how the men who control governments view the position of women.
But surely no one can reasonably argue that girls have any less right to a basic education than do boys.