Women across the world continue to suffer from gender inequality, including child- and forced marriage, gender-based violence, sexist policies, as well as barriers to participation in education and employment. Achieving gender equity globally is crucial to meeting development goals, reducing human suffering and solving our biggest environmental problems. 

"Population growth is straining the Earth's resources to the breaking point, and educating girls is the single most important factor in stabilizing that. That, plus helping women gain political and economic power and safeguarding their reproductive rights."

– Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States

Barriers to equality

No country has yet achieved full gender equality and women across the world continue to suffer from discrimination and unequal rights and opportunities.

The situation is worst in countries where harmful patriarchal traditions, including child marriage and female genital mutilation, remain the norm. Globally, one in four girls does not attend secondary school and one in five girls is married before her 18th birthday. Child marriage robs girls of a bright future and brings a high risk of death and injury related to pregnancy and childbirth. In most developing countries, a woman's ability to determine the number and spacing of her children is limited or non-existent.

Even in many high-income countries, women often get paid less than men for the same jobs, face gender-based discrimination and violence, and suffer from mysoginistic attitudes and sexist policies that restrict their autonomy over their own bodies.

Globally, one in every five girls is married, or in union, before turning 18. In the least developed countries, that number increases to 40 per cent, with a shocking 12 per cent married before age 15. (UNFPA)

An equal world is a better world

Empowering women is the most effective way to reduce fertility rates and achieve a sustainable population size that respects the limits of Earth's carrying capacity. The number of years a woman has spent in education is usually inversely correlated with the number of children she will bear in her lifetime.

Project Drawdown, which compares the effectiveness of different measures to curb climate change, has shown that educating girls and securing women's voluntary right to high-quality family planning together could reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by 85 gigatonnes, making this one of the most powerful solutions to climate change.

"Honoring the dignity of women and children through family planning is not about governments forcing the birth rate down (or up, through natalist policies). Nor is it about those in rich countries, where emissions are highest, telling people elsewhere to stop having children. When family planning focuses on healthcare provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment, equality, and well-being are the result; the benefits to the planet are side effects."

- Project Drawdown

Achieving gender equality will make the world a healthier, happier place and is crucial to making lasting environmental progress.

Population Matters is calling for women’s empowerment globally, including:

  • Ensuring equal participation of girls and women in education and the work place;
  • Giving women sovereignty over their bodies, including unrestricted access to modern contraception and abortion;
  • Ending the practice of child- and forced marriage, which violate girls’ rights to a healthy, fulfilling life;
  • Granting women full equality under all laws and ending all policies that disadvantage women;
  • Eliminating patriarchal attitudes and behaviours that cause women to suffer and that prevent them from accessing positions of power;
  • Providing adequate parental leave and childcare opportunities that enable women to have the same unhindered career progression as their partners.
Countries that have implemented successful, pro-active family planning campaigns. Combining female empowerment with facilitated access to contraception and good information is vital to bringing down birth rates.

Reproductive health and rights

Poor reproductive health is a leading cause of illness and death for women in developing countries. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), some 830 women still die every day from pregnancy or childbirth complications, and these remain the primary cause of death for 15-19 year-old girls globally. Within relationships, women often have very little control over which contraception methods they use (if any), and are often powerless in protecting themselves against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. While family planning services and attitudes towards them are improving, they remain inadequate. Even in developed nations, unintended pregnancies remain common while sex education and family planning are under threat from regressive policies and funding restrictions.

UNFPA estimates that more than 200 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for modern contraception, meaning they do not wish to become pregnant but are not using safe and effective contraceptive methods. In fact, this number is still increasing due to family planning services not keeping pace with rapid population growth in the most vulnerable areas.

Even where contraception is readily available, uptake and use are limited by lack of information and cultural acceptance, resistance from male partners and affordability. As well as facilitating universal access to modern contraception, quality health care and good information, we must overcome harmful socio-cultural barriers to responsible family planning.

Empowering women in Kenya: Dandelion Africa

Wendo Aszed, Founder of our Empower to Plan programme partner Dandelion Africa, explains how she came to fight for women's sexual and reproductive health in rural Kenya, the challenge of rapid population growth, and how access to modern family planning has changed lives for the better.

Empower to Plan

Population Matters' Empower to Plan initiative supports select grassroots organisations around the world in delivering vital family planning services to women in need. 


Protecting family planning from US cuts

In 2017, US President Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy, better known as the “Global Gag Rule”. This policy blocks U.S. federal funding for non-governmental organisations that provide abortion counselling or referrals, advocate to decriminalise abortion, or expand abortion services. Considering that the US was until recently the world’s largest funder of family planning services through overseas aid, this policy has left a major vacuum that governments and other institutions are struggling to fill.

Choosing smaller families

Fortunately, there are many areas of the world where women can choose the number of children they have. However, social norms and cultural or religious pressure still often lead to women having many children. Many people aren't aware of the environmental impact their children will have in their lifetimes. This is particularly significant in rich nations - the carbon footprint of one average American today, for example, is equivalent to that of 150 people in Niger.

Exercising responsible family planning is vital to ensuring the well-being of current and future generations.

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