Guest blog post by Lindsey Reichlin, Aspen Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health
We all knew the world’s population was growing exponentially. But today we have learned that previous predictions may have underestimated that growth: the global population could grow to nearly 11 billion by 2100. This impressive growth, combined with disturbing food and water shortages, diminished resources, and rapid climate change has sustained high rates of hunger and undernutrition, particularly in the developing world. With World Population Day this week and 868 million people already living in hunger, we must realize the size and health of the future global population will largely depend on the reproductive choices we make today.
Simply put, women who have access to comprehensive, voluntary reproductive health services and information are more likely to choose to have smaller families. Research has proven that access to family planning can reduce fertility rates in developing countries. UNFPA estimates that improved access to family planning has halved the number of births per woman in the last 50 years. Yet, in many developing countries where population growth is rapid, impoverished women – those most vulnerable to food insecurity, climate change, and declining resources – still have to rely on chance to determine the size of their families.
Choosing when and how many children a woman wants to have can significantly reduce the economic burden on her family, while increasing the chance her family will be food secure. Voluntary family planning produces smaller families not only by reducing unplanned pregnancies, but by enabling women to space births according to their preference and financial resources. The more women can make informed reproductive health choices, the more likely it is they will choose to have smaller families – decreasing demand for resources and increasing food security.
Addressing this connection between food security and reproductive health is critical to ensuring population growth does not overwhelm the world’s resources. PATH’s Integrated Population and Coastal Resource Management project exemplifies a cost-effective intervention that did just that. The project, which integrated sustainable fishing practices with improved access to family planning, enabled coastal communities with a history of rapid population growth, extensive malnutrition, and overwhelmed municipal fisheries to take control of their reproductive health and natural resources for the sustainability of community life.
Food security also has an important impact on the well-being of mothers and children. Pregnant and nursing women in the developing world frequently suffer from hunger and malnutrition. As a result, they often give birth to underweight babies, who are 20 percent more likely to die before age five, and almost half are anemic, causing approximately 110,000 deaths annually.
Well-nourished mothers are less likely to die from childbirth and give birth to unhealthy babies. They are also better able to provide financially for their families and give their children quality care. Child nutrition directly improves as a result: mothers spend more on food and household needs and children consume more calories per day in female-headed households.
As the world’s population continues to grow, we must increasingly develop policies and programs that integrate the mutually reinforcing goals of reproductive health, population, and food security. Doing so will enable women to make informed choices about their health and the health of their families, while simultaneously ensuring the viability of the world’s resources for generations to come.
Lindsey Reichlin is a human rights and global health professional and graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She has devoted her professional life to improving access to and utilization of effective policies and programs supporting the health of vulnerable groups worldwide.
The Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health (GLC) is composed of eighteen sitting and former heads of state, high-level policymakers and other leaders who build political leadership for increased financial and technical support for reproductive health. The GLC is housed within Aspen Global Health and Development at the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC whose mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.