This article is an excerpt of a Monitor interview with Nafis Sadik, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). She was keynote speaker at an Oct. 14 population conference at Simmons College in Boston.
What are some positive trends in world population in the past 25 years?
Family size has gone down from six children per woman to three children - that's half. Because of access [to family planning] contraceptive use has increased from 10 percent to about 60 percent in the developing world. Life expectancy has increased by about 20 years - a huge increase. Infant mortality has gone down dramatically. All countries are providing family planning information and services, while three years ago, just a handful of countries did that.
In many countries there's been quite good involvement and participation of religious groups and leaders. There are some Muslim and Catholic countries who say only parents can provide [family planning] information. But Iran has a very excellent adolescent reproductive sex education and service program. In a pilot study they educated all the parents in the community, and told the young people that all these parents were informed and they knew how to deal with these issues of sex and sex education. They could go to any parent; they didn't have to go to their [own] parents. And so parents become the health educators in that community.
What national laws affect women's ability to regulate their family size?
Inheritance is definitely one; the wife becomes the property of the family. The girl's rights in marriage. The right to own her own properties, not just inheritance, but the right to own. The right to travel. The right to be educated, to be in school and not pulled out.
In the case of China you have the one-child policy. We have a program now in 32 [Chinese] counties where there are no targets and no quotas. The population has been informed that they can have as many children as they want. The outcome is not that women or couples have unlimited numbers of children. If you visit some of these villages, they say, "Why would we have more than two children?" Some only wanted to have one child. In the counties that we have been working in, they have been quite unconcerned whether it's a boy or a girl because they can have as many children as they want.
Are there any unfavorable trends in population growth?
Not in the developing world. In Japan, they're very concerned about low fertility - their size of family is 1.3. Many young women are refusing to get married and don't want to have children. One reason is they are totally responsible for bringing up children; and it's quite an onerous task. If the child's not a success, the mother is responsible.
If all countries are working to provide family planning information and services, is overpopulation under control?
No. [Population growth] is 78 million people a year - still very high. The annual growth rate is 1.33 percent [and population is expected to reach] 10.5 billion by 2100. The next billion will happen in about 14 years. But the next billion can be delayed [by about a year]. [Right now] we have the largest cohort of 15 to 24 year-olds - over 1 billion. The decisions these young people make will have a very important effect on the future of the world's population. If they decide to delay their first pregnancy and to have proper spacing between pregnancies, the difference could be something like half a billion to 1 billion people by the year 2015.
The US Congress stopped funding the UNFPA, because it doesn't want that money used for abortions.
Which is a false issue because at the Cairo conference [on population held by the UN in 1994] it was agreed that abortion should not be promoted as a method of family planning. Everybody agrees unsafe abortions must be eliminated. And everyone agrees that the way to do that is to eliminate unintended, unwanted pregnancies, by providing contraceptive services to girls and women. This preoccupation in the Congress with abortion is counterproductive. By eliminating family planning, you increase abortions.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society