Overpopulation puts us all at risk. Every person deserves equal access to natural resources—water, clean air, food, land—but as our numbers grow and the economically stable consume massive amounts of resources, we see devastating destruction of ecosystems. Our natural resources degrade and climate change threatens to harm each of us, especially the most economically disenfranchised.
However, this does not have to be the permanent path we follow. As we look to shift the direction of our future, we can focus on solutions that help the most economically and socially disadvantaged among us. As we advocate for overpopulation solutions as a means of sustainability, we must put women and girls first.
Impacting Population with Education and Job Security
Education for girls poses a complex dilemma. It is not merely a question of access—cultural attitudes must also shift. Families need to prioritize education for girls.
The issue of uneducated girls is widespread, and increased rates of unemployment and underemployment follow. UNESCO reports that the number of out-of-school girls at the primary level has decreased, but not at a satisfactory level. Any number of unschooled girls is too many. Of the 960 million illiterate adults in the world, two thirds are women.
The impact of this is not only felt by women, but also has ripple effects on the broader community. Women who do not have financial independence are subject to the whims of their partners, placing them at risk of social inequality and gender-based violence. According to UNICEF, when we invest in secondary education for girls, rates of child marriage, child mortality, maternal mortality, and child stunting decrease, while the lifetime earnings of girls greatly increase. Of course, the number of children women choose to have also decreases in direct proportion to the years of education.
So where do we go from here?
Advocacy for girls begins with education. As we provide the space for the critical thinking and confidence building that accompanies an education, we must also change social norms around vocational opportunities. Women who pursue successful careers gain independence and are better equipped to help their communities thrive. Financially stable women will pour money and ideas back into local economies and keep businesses and communities afloat.
PMC’s Pambazuko (“New Dawn”) addresses the importance of reproductive health and education as effective means toward curbing population growth. Listeners of the show were 3.2 times more likely than non-listeners to say that girls should be encouraged to pursue their education to a high level.
Impacting Population with Contraceptives and Family Planning
Beyond education, women face other obstacles that impede their paths toward self-sustainability. People around the world have now listened to the valedictorian in Texas who used her podium to talk about what might happen to her future if her contraception fails. In Texas, where abortion is now illegal beyond six weeks—before most women know they are pregnant—this college-bound valedictorian eloquently expressed how everything she dreams of and everything she’s worked for could be jeopardized.
The availability of a wide range of birth control options is pivotal to the health and well-being of women and girls. Not only in a very physical sense, related to their health in delivery and the health of their children, but also in terms of the direction of their life, their economic status, and their social status. Women who have children before they want to or have many children—including young girls who fall victim to child marriage—endure health complications and economic hardships.
We must build a world that prioritizes the health and well-being of women and ensures that every child is wanted and every mother is cared for. Access and agency to use contraceptives and family planning is the most comprehensive solution available. The WHO reports that 74 million women in low and middle-income countries have unintended pregnancies each year. And during the COVID-19 lockdown, millions of women around the world experienced a lack of access to contraceptives.
The same report shares the story of Maya Bohara, a 32 year old from Nepal. Maya relied on injected contraceptives for nine years, but was unable to receive treatment during the lockdown. Or take Hira Lawad, a mother of two. Hira was unable to receive her contraceptive injection because of a lack of inventory, even though she and her husband had already decided they were done having children. As a result, Hira became pregnant for the third time.
We must begin by funding family planning programs. Individuals, families, and entire communities need to be properly educated about contraceptive methods and family planning to effectively prevent unplanned pregnancies. Women and girls should be able to make informed decisions about if and when they want children. These decisions improve the mother’s ability to pursue her dreams and to ensure that her family will be cared for. This also dramatically impacts the healthcare and education for these children.
Impacting Population by Stopping Child Marriage
Child marriage must also be stopped as we work towards overpopulation solutions. Imagine not choosing your own life partner. Imagine that he has been chosen for you, and that you have no education. Imagine that your spouse is twice your age or more, with dramatically greater life experience. Imagine you know nothing about intercourse or pregnancy. Now, imagine the multitude of personal and societal risks child marriage presents, as it perpetuates a cycle of low social status and poverty for women, limiting prospects for an education and job opportunities. Girls who are married before the age of 15 are 50% more likely to experience physical or sexual intimate partner violence than those married after 18.
PMC’s Ruwan Dare (“Midnight Rain”) is based in Nigeria and includes a child marriage storyline. The girl's young body cannot withstand a traumatic birth. The baby dies, so her husband returns her to her father deeming her “damaged goods.” As you well know, our stories are based on formative research to reflect reality. A reality we must change.
Putting Women and Girls First
Overpopulation solutions must get to the root of the problem. What drives our dramatically increasing population? The truth is, population growth is high because women don’t have equal rights and equal opportunities. If women and girls were allowed to attend schools and given the time and space to learn and grow, population projections would dramatically change. If women and girls were given comprehensive sex education and had reproductive rights, population projections would dramatically change. If women and girls were never in positions in which they needed to marry in order to have enough money to provide for their families or have basic needs met, population projections would dramatically change.
It’s time to flip the script. It’s time to put the focus where it needs to be in order to stop population growth. We need to focus on the rights of women and girls. Mandating the rights of women and girls is a human rights imperative, and a global sustainability imperative. The health of the planet—and the future of all Earth’s species—depends on it. We can reimagine a world in which all people can thrive. Our future depends on hers.