What is climate crisis? The solution is to convince women to have fewer children. That societies are aging? The recommended measure is, then, the opposite, to convince them to have more children. The high demographic growth in some countries and the aging of the population in others —in a planet with finite resources and increasingly unstable— invites some governments to implement control policies to decrease, increase or maintain the birth rate, a “simplistic” approach that it reduces humanity to “numbers” and turns women’s bodies into a tool without considering their sexual and reproductive rights. This is the warning that emerges from the latest report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), made public this Wednesday, an analysis that reveals a growing “anxiety” among the population at the prospect of the exponential increase in human beings in a world with overlapping crises and very long-lived populations.

“Governments are making greater use of policies for demographic purposes, either to reduce the birth rate or to increase it, which contributes to the anxiety of the population, because the idea is transmitted that there is a demographic problem that requires a intervention of public power”, explains Jaume Nadal Roig, demographer and UNFPA representative in Ukraine, in a conversation with this newspaper. This demographic approach encourages the application of policies that, instead of “promoting that women can exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, exploits them and turns them into a means to achieve an end,” criticizes Nadal. Among the most extreme cases are countries such as Iran, which has introduced restrictions on abortion and has prohibited public health services from offering free contraceptives to boost the birth rate. Or some states in India – a country that has taken the position of the most populous in the world from China – that promote measures to restrict births, such as policies of a maximum of two children per woman.

Exposure to messages about the world’s population appears to be linked to increased concern about population size, fertility rate and immigration, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

Last November, the UN announced that humanity had surpassed 8,000 million people, at the same time that two thirds of the population lives in places where the fertility rate has fallen below the so-called “replacement level”, of 2.1 children per woman. This figure, which is frequently raised as a guarantee of population stability, has become a red line that leads governments and the media to use catastrophic terms such as “demographic bomb” —when it is exceeded— or “demographic disaster”. —when it is not achieved—, denounces UNFPA.

The demographic rhetoric of population hecatomb, according to the organization, negatively affects world public opinion. A survey commissioned by UNFPA and carried out by YouGov among 7,797 people from eight countries (Brazil, Egypt, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Nigeria and the United States) reveals that the number of people living in the planet. “Exposure to messages about the world’s population appears to be linked to increased concern about population size, fertility rate, and immigration,” the report analyzes. This perception is worrying in a context in which, according to the UN body, six out of seven people say they “feel insecure” in a world threatened by the climate crisis and in which tensions have multiplied since the covid pandemic. -19, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, historic levels of mass displacement, weakened economies, and food and energy shortages.

It is true, the UN experts acknowledge, that the size of the population entails complex challenges in its relationship with the distribution of wealth, the consumption of natural resources and fuels or the existence of sufficient infrastructures, health services or programs of pensions to assist the population. However, these problems of an economic or climatic nature should not be approached from a demographic point of view, according to the authors of the report.

Challenges of an economic or climatic nature should not be approached from a demographic point of view, argue the authors of the report

For example, according to the report, in some countries where governments implement policies to increase the fertility rate, “abortion can be limited, a measure that is usually accompanied by others such as the denial of sexual education in schools or the difficulties in accessing contraceptive methods”, explains Nadal. “It’s a global trend,” adds the demographer, who recalls that policies to the contrary, limiting birth rates, have historically also involved a violation of rights, such as the forced sterilization of indigenous women from America or populations Gypsies from Europe

“Women are not baby factories,” says Natalia Kanem, executive director of UNFPA. “The correct question is not whether the population is too high or low, but whether all people live in freedom and their reproductive rights are respected,” he said last Thursday during the presentation of the report to the press, a few days before its publication. . Her conclusion is that when the population is treated as numbers and not as people, human rights are forgotten.

The data corroborates it. The latest UNFPA survey on the state of the world population carried out in 68 countries reveals that 44% of women in a relationship cannot make decisions about their health care, their sexual relations or contraceptive methods. The result of this situation is that “almost half of all pregnancies are unwanted”, a suppression of the basic human right of women to decide freely and responsibly if they want to have children and, if so, how many they will have. and when they will have them.

The problem is not that of decades ago, according to Nadal, the non-availability of contraceptive methods or their cost, but others: the lack of access to information —such as questions about side effects— or the distance to which many women live from health centers, especially in countries with fewer resources. “Many women are forced to use injectable contraceptive methods so they don’t have to negotiate their use,” criticizes Kanen, who places contraception as a fundamental tool to empower women.

climate crisis

The rhetoric of a “too high” population is a simplistic way, according to the UNFPA report, of justifying “overstretched infrastructure, the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, economic instability, hunger and security threats.” “10% of the population is responsible for 50% of the causes of greenhouse gases”, underlines Jaume Nadal, which shows “that those countries with low fertility rates and that want to increase them are the ones that produce most of the CO2″. In other words, reducing fertility rates will not solve the climate crisis because the countries that register the most births are the ones that have contributed the least to climate change, despite being the ones who suffer the most from its consequences, reinforces Kanen. The solutions go, according to UNFPA, through other interventions such as “sustainable consumption patterns or investment in renewable energy.”

But also, a reduction in the population would not have effects in the short or medium term. “Two thirds of the demographic growth that will take place until 2050 is explained by the so-called ‘demographic moment’, an inertia caused by the current youth of the world population and by the growth in life expectancy”, Nadal specifies.

Nor would increasing the birth rate in countries with aging populations have immediate effects, says the UNFPA report: it would not solve the current payment of pensions and could generate unwanted effects such as higher expenses in education or health systems. In this case, the measures that, according to the experts, would most effectively strengthen social protection systems are equality policies aimed at favoring a greater incorporation of women into the labor market, under the same conditions as men, with a support structure that allows you to reconcile the productive role with the reproductive one. And that, at the same time, men continue to join the housework.

On the other hand, “immigration has to be part of the discussion, since immigrants raise fertility rates,” says Kanem. The UNFPA expert thus rejects the “great replacement” theory, coined by Renaud Camus a little over a decade ago and now defended by the white extreme right, according to which the higher birth rates of the immigrant population will end up replacing the population native —and white— of the host countries.

And faced with the manipulation of demographic figures, which, according to UNFPA researcher Michael Hermann, always ends in a “diminishing of human rights”, there is only one possible antidote: to strengthen “demographic resilience”, that is, the ability to adapt and anticipate the challenges of a population that has fluctuated throughout history. Because, as the UN agency concludes, “population change is something to be planned for, not feared.”

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