TWO things have happened in the African nation of Zimbabwe since it gained independence 14 years ago. The status of women has risen, thanks to government efforts to provide legal rights, opportunities in business and politics, and access to education. And Zimbabwean families have shrunk, from an average size of seven children born to married couples to just over five.
If the foot soldiers in the world's small army of population experts are correct, the coincidence of these developments is no coincidence. When they gather in Cairo next month for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, they will invoke examples of countries such as Zimbabwe to stress a point that is likely to dominate the proceedings: that economic development helps slow population growth, that reducing population growth helps spur economic development, and that increasing opportunities for women is the crucial requirement for both.
``Empowering women is the key to solving population problems,'' says Nafis Sadik, director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Dr. Sadik will step to the podium to chair the Cairo conference at a moment when innovative approaches to the population issue are more needed than ever before.
The world's population is now 5.66 billion, on its way to 6 billion by the turn of the century, according to the UN. Even if fertility continues to decline at the present rate - the assumption built into the UN's ``medium'' or most likely projection - it will still reach 8.5 billion by 2025 and 10 billion by 2050. If efforts to slow population growth falter, the 2050 total will be 12.5 billion, a difference (2.5 billion) as great as the entire world population in 1950.
Although the rate of global population growth subsided nearly a quarter of a century ago, actual increases in human numbers - now 94 million per year - are the highest in history.
More than 90 percent of this growth is taking place in developing countries, with more than 70 percent in the very poorest nations where average daily income is less than $2 per capita, according to a World Bank report issued last week.
Against the sobering fact that the human family now grows by one-quarter of a million people per day, there are some hopeful developments.
The advent of the family-planning movement since the 1960s has brought contraceptive services to the remotest corners of the world, leading globally, as in Zimbabwe, to what UNFPA calls an ``explosion of contraceptive practice.'' Over half the world's women - 55 percent - now use contraceptives, up from 10 percent 25 years ago.
During the same period, the size of the average family globally has dropped from roughly six to four, or halfway to the fertility ``replacement level'' of 2.1 children needed to stabilize growth.
At Cairo, there will be talk of expanding family services to reach the estimated 350 million women who have no access to them but who wish to delay or stop having children. Transferable lessons can be gleaned from highly successful family-planning programs in countries like Thailand and Colombia.
But the main focus in Cairo will be on women, whose needs have largely been ignored in the past, but the elevation of whose status is now widely understood to lie at the nexus of the two issues to which the conference is dedicated: population and development.
Women's groups, which have been highly influential in shaping the draft program of action that will be ratified at the conference, say family-planning programs have fallen short of their potential by placing more emphasis on meeting demographic targets than on addressing the individual needs of women. They advocate a woman-centered approach to family planning that emphasizes a wider range of contraceptive choices, better counseling, and a broader array of primary and reproductive health services.
But women's groups say improving family planning needs to be part of a much larger effort to lift a pervasive gender bias that is reinforced by custom, law, and government policies and that has deprived women of the very resources, jobs, and educational opportunities - in short, the very means of empowerment - needed to reduce their dependence on children.
As examples such as Thailand and South Korea suggest, fertility declines most rapidly when high-quality family- planning programs are combined with social policies that equalize access to education, jobs, and credit, and break down legal and cultural barriers to participation of women in development.
``Evidence is accumulating that free and equal access to health care, family planning, and education is not only desirable in itself, but a practical contributor to the success of wider objectives, including environmental protection and economic development,'' Sadik says.
The inverse correlation between female education and fertility rates - as the former goes up, the latter goes down - has been demonstrated in dozens of studies around the world. Researchers have found that more schooling gives women the knowledge and skills to act on the desire for smaller families and leads to delayed marriages. One UN study showed that women in developing countries who completed seven or more years of school bore an average of 3.9 children, while women with no schooling bore an average of 6.9, or 80 percent more.
According to an earlier World Bank study, doubling female enrollment rates in a large sampling of developing countries could have translated into nearly 30 million fewer births.
Employment opportunities for women, meanwhile, have contributed to lower fertility by creating ``opportunity costs'' for large families. Researchers have also found that in very poor societies, the additional income produced if the wife is working makes longer-term planning possible, changing the context in which child-bearing decisions are made.
As Sadik notes: ``The solution to the [population] problem can only come about when couples, mostly in developing countries, decide for themselves that smaller families are in their own best interest. The international community must help to create the conditions which encourage people to make that choice.''
Creating such conditions also includes educating men, described by one expert as the ``forgotten half of family planning.'' Family-planning agencies are spending more on advertising campaigns designed to convince men that it's more macho to have fewer children, all of whom have shoes and schoolbooks, than many children who have neither.
Most population experts agree that the conditions needed to encourage the choice of smaller families are also conducive to economic development and environmental sustainability. For example, if women, an increasing number of whom head rural households in the developing world, were given equal access to credit, land ownership, and marketing services, they could be more productive, making a greater contribution to national economic growth. They would also have a greater stake in preserving the land, making it more sustainable for future generations.
Half of humanity under age 25
In addition to the daunting population numbers themselves, two factors add urgency to the nine-day deliberations scheduled to begin in Cairo on September 5th. One is that nearly half of humanity is under the age of 25. With so many people approaching or just entering reproductive age it would take half a century or more, before population growth would be stabilized, even if all of them - to cite a purely theoretical calculation - immediately limited family size to two children.
``Momentum will ensure large increases in global population for several decades to come,'' notes the World Bank.
The other factor is the sheer speed with which such growth is occurring. In some of the world's poorest nations, population-doubling times are no more than one-quarter of a century. In Africa as a whole, population will double in just 35 years, from 720 million to 1.6 billion. During the same period, Asia's population will grow by half, from 3.4 to 5.1 billion, according to the World Bank. Such rapid growth places enormous pressure on fragile governments to keep up with swelling demands for food, housing, jobs, and social services.
Population experts are encouraged by the results of national fertility surveys that indicate that as many as 125 million women who do not now have access to convenient and affordable family-planning services would like to space their pregnancies or stop having children altogether. Demographers estimate 180 million more women might use contraceptives if they were available. Thus, by merely expanding services, it may be possible to raise global contraceptive-use rates to at least 60 percent, a level that would lower average family size to just under three children per couple.