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July 11 World Population Day

by Marta Blackwell | June 25, 2003

July 11 is World Population Day

So what does population mean? Has the meaning changed? Why should anyone care? What happens when we look at population from a women’s perspective?

preventing women from having children

For environmentalists in the 1960s, population was based on a simple notion that the numbers of people on the planet would ultimately eat all of the food, drink all of the water and consume all of the resources of the planet. From this perspective, the obvious solution was to reduce the number of people, or at least slow population growth. Out of this thinking, which was widely adopted by governments, especially the United States, grew family planning programs. These programmes aimed at reducing the number of children born to each woman – primarily poor women and women living in the global South. Population policies and programs in developing countries were largely focused on demographic targets. In North American and European countries, there were no similar policies put into place.

investing in the lives of women

By the time of the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, a dramatic new approach to population issues had developed. The Cairo Conference shifted the focus away from demographic objectives and placed the emphasis on meeting the needs of individuals. For the first time, the global community agreed that investing in people, making it possible for them to realize their potential as human beings, is key to sustained economic growth, as well as to balanced and sustainable population growth.

The Cairo Conference also broke new ground in the area of reproductive health. The 179 participating countries agreed that comprehensive reproductive health and not just family planning services must be a global priority. The Programme of Action emphasizes the importance of meeting the totality of people’s reproductive health needs, particularly those of women and girls.

how women live

Feminist thinking on women’s sexual and reproductive rights has influenced the whole health and human rights field. It has challenged public policy to take a contextualized approach – taking into account all of the facets of a woman’s life. That means how women interact, to health, and in particular, reproductive and sexual health.

Lynn Freedman describes how women what happens when a gender perspective is used:

In the health field they [reproductive health activists] have reacted against population control efforts that have treated women as “targets” of contraceptive programmes, blatantly manipulating their reproductive capacity in order to achieve demographic goals – goals set by dominant elites in pursuit of any number of different political agendas. They have reacted against maternal/child health policies that view the health of women as an instrument to ensure the health of children, and not as an important or valuable matter in its own right. They have reacted against medical institutions that focus on different pieces of women’s bodies as discrete biological systems to be prodded, probed and fixed, rather than seeing women’s health as women live it, as part of complex interactive systems tied inextricably to the broader conditions of their lives. And they have reacted against domination by health professionals who present “risk” as if the only thing at stake in deciding whether or not to conceive or give birth is the possibility of physical injury; who obsess about reproduction but ignore sexuality; who preach about “personal responsibility” but fold on the question of power and resources, of vulnerability and discrimination.1

(emphasis added)

Population policy is not an issue of just numbers, but must be concerned with complex social relationships that govern birth, quality of life, death and migration.

These include:

  • control and distribution of resources within countries and internationally,
  • disparity of incomes,
  • consumption patterns, and
  • international trade and economic policies.

(For example, most people realize that trade agreements affect things such as access to essential medications including anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS, but the impact of trade agreements has yet to be fully assessed when it comes to women’s human rights. Most feminist analysts agree that the impact of trade agreements on women’s rights needs to be more fully explored.)

importance of reproductive choice – still not there

Reproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international laws and international human rights documents and other consensus documents. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic rights of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes the right to make decisions regarding reproductive free of discrimination, coercion and violence, as expressed in human rights documents.

— ICPD Programme of Action, paragraph 7.3 (emphasis added)

have attitudes to abortion and sexual and reproductive health changed?

In 1917, a young Catholic woman in Nova Scotia found herself pregnant and unmarried. Her mother was a nurse serving overseas in the World War One, and managed to get her daughter to England aboard a troopship, where she obtained an abortion. The next year, with no access to contraceptives, she was pregnant again. She shot herself. If this young woman had access to comprehensive sexuality education, information and services, would her situation have been different?

In 1953, a young woman, married with one child, was told not to risk another pregnancy, as she would be in danger of dying. She used contraceptives, but became pregnant anyway. Her religion prohibited abortion. She and the baby died on the delivery table.

In 2003, young women in Canada were the fastest growing group of new HIV infections. Young women, especially those in small towns or rural Canada, often do not have access to confidential, private sexual and reproductive health services.2

Abortion, although not against the law in Canada, is becoming increasingly restricted, as Catholic hospitals merge with secular institutions and insist that contraception and abortion services are eliminated. Only 17.8% of all general hospitals in Canada perform abortions, with some provinces offering no hospital abortion services at all.3

These are issues in Canada. These are global issues:

  • Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member. One woman in four has been abused during pregnancy.4
  • Among girls aged 15–19, 15 million give birth each year. Four million undergo abortion – many unsafe. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that the number of deaths from unsafe abortion is close to 70,000 per annum.
  • Only 17% of sexually active young people use contraceptives.
  • Half of all new infections of HIV/AIDS occur among young people aged 15–24. In some places in Africa – infections among people aged 15–24, 9 million have AIDS, two-thirds of them women.
  • Currently, the U.S. administration is advocating and funding sexual education based on abstinence only, both nationally as well as internationally – even though it has been found that comprehensive sexual education both within and outside of formal education systems help young people understand sexual changes as positive and natural aspects of their development.

In fact:

  • Education about sexual health and HIV does not encourage increased sexual activity.
  • Quality sexual health education delays the onset of sexual activity, reduces the number of sexual partners and reduces unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates.
  • Responsible and safe behaviour can be learned.
  • Sexual health education is best started before the onset of sexual activity.5

Abstinence-only programmes object to most of these components.

  • Sexual orientation is yet to be considered grounds for human rights protection by the United Nations Human Rights system.

You can help improve women’s reproductive choice and health

  • Go to the United Nations Population Fund website for ideas on how to engage in World Population Day activities.
  • Go to the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health website and get involved in their campaigns.
  • Learn more about the history of abortion in Canada and what remains to be done at the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League.
  • Learn more about population as a global issue Action Canada for Population and Development.
more to consider

New York, Jun 18 2003

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) today launched the first-ever report on women in sub-Saharan Africa living with obstetric fistula, a debilitating pregnancy-related condition caused by prolonged obstructed labour.

UNFPA said fistula usually occurs when a woman is in labour for days on end without medical help and cannot get a Caesarean section. The prolonged pressure of the baby's head against the mother's pelvis cuts off the blood supply to the soft tissues surrounding her bladder, rectum and vagina. The injured tissue soon rots away, leaving a hole, or fistula.

“We hope this report will sound a global alarm about fistula,” said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director. “Most women living with fistula today suffer in silence, unaware that a simple cure is available. These women deserve our immediate attention. That is why UNFPA has launched a global campaign to prevent and treat fistula.”

Obstetric fistula leaves women constantly leaking urine or faeces. The new report, Obstetric Fistula Needs Assessment: Findings from Nine African Countries, shows that many sufferers are abandoned by their husbands, forced out of their homes, ostracized by family and friends and even disdained by health workers, who consider them “unclean.”

Fistula is both preventable and treatable. It is virtually unknown in places where early pregnancy is discouraged, young women are educated, family planning is accessible and skilled medical care is provided at childbirth, UNFPA said.

The report assesses the capacity of 35 hospitals in nine countries – Benin, Chad, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda and Zambia – to treat patients. It outlines their needs for equipment, skilled medical staff and surgical supplies. In many countries, doctors are unable to meet the demand for care.

The new report indicates that current figures on the number of women living with fistula – estimated at 2 million – are too low, since they are based on patients who seek treatment in medical facilities. In Nigeria alone, there could be as many as 1 million women living with fistula, the report says.


1 Reflections on Emerging Frameworks of Health and Human Rights, by LYNN P. FREEDMAN, in Health and Human Rights: A Reader, Jonathan M. Mann, Sophia Gruskin, Michael A. Grodin, and George J. Annas, eds., Routledge, pg. 234 | 1999

2 HIV and AIDS, Health Canada, includes information and links to issues related to HIV/AIDS.

3 For more information about access to abortion services, download a PDF of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League 2003 report, Protecting Abortion Rights in Canada.

4 Gender, Health and Human Rights, by REBECCA J. COOK, in Health and Human Rights: A Reader, Jonathan M. Mann, Sophia Gruskin, Michael A. Grodin, and George J. Annas, eds., Routledge, pg. 262 | 1999

5 Information on comprehensive sexual health education can be found at UNFPA:
Education and Empowerment: Moving from Information to Action
Ending Widespread Violence Against Women

resources for this story
  • Human Rights Law and Safe Motherhood, by REBECCA COOK, 5 European Journal of Health Law, pg. 357 | 1998
  • Health and Human Rights, by REBECCA J. COOK, in Health and Human Rights: A Reader, Jonathan M. Mann, Sophia Gruskin, Michael A. Grodin, and George J. Annas, eds., Routledge, New York and London, pg. 262 | 1999
  • Reflections on Emerging Frameworks of Health and Human Rights, by LYNN P. FREEDMAN, in Health and Human Rights: A Reader, Jonathan M. Mann, Sophia Gruskin, Michael A. Grodin, and George J. Annas, eds., Routledge, pg. 234 | 1999
  • For more information on current issues related to HIV/AIDS and access to generic drugs visit Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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