Consensus in Cairo

by Guest Writer Rep. Anna Eshoo

Opposition to abortion dominated the headlines going into the recently concluded U.N. Population Conference in Cairo, but in my view the most important news coming out of that meeting was that 175 countries have reached a remarkable consensus on curbing population growth by addressing the broad issues surrounding reproductive health.

 In particular, consensus was reached on the need to empower women, provide better access to modern family planning services, decrease poverty, improve environmental protection, decrease unsustainable consumption and help families, especially children and the elderly.

 I support this agreement because it offers a realistic plan for the global community to contain population growth. According to Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth, "five biological systems -- croplands, forests, grasslands, oceans and fresh waterways -- support the world economy. Except for fossil fuels and minerals, they supply all the raw materials for industry; and provide all our food." Reining in the world's population will help us use these precious resources more sparingly. Unless we do, our fragile planet will remain at risk from environmental devastation, leaving humankind unable to sustain itself.

 While populations continue to soar in many parts of the world, some progress has been made in slowing overall growth rates. The world average fertility rate has dropped from six children per couple in the 1960s to just over three children today. Not surprisingly, the global population growth rate has declined from 2.1 percent in the 1970s to 1.5 percent in the 1990s.

 That's progress, but it is not good enough. It took 123 years for the world's population to increase from one to two billion. It currently takes only 12 years for an additional billion people to be born.

 At that rate, the global population is expected to grow by 49 percent to 8.4 billion people by the year 2030. Most of this growth will occur in countries which can least afford it, such as China, India and Ethiopia.

 If we want to avoid a future filled with more famines, environmental degradation, overcrowded cities, mass migrations and high maternal and infant mortality, then we must take additional steps to bring down population growth rates.

 The Cairo conference developed a new strategy on population which focuses on being more responsive to women's needs. Why pay more attention to women? Because family planners have found that women will likely opt for fewer children if their own health, economic and education requirements are met.

 According to the U.N. figures for the developing world, girls are often removed from schools at younger ages than boys, female workers earn wages less than 40 percent of what men earn for the same jobs, and both girls and women are routinely beaten and brutalized more often than boys and men. In addition, women frequently are shut out of participation in the political process and find themselves denied commercial loans from banks. No wonder so many women and their families believe that security in life can only be achieved through early marriage, high fertility and dependence on husbands, fathers and sons.

 When concerted efforts have been made to address this situation, the results have been impressive. For example, the state of Kerala in India is one of that country's poorest regions. Some years ago Kerala decided to invest in major campaigns to educate all children, combat infant mortality and provide at least a small amount of bank credit to women. In contrast, India's overall family planning program stresses authoritarian measures to meet quotas, downplays individual choice and emphasizes sterilization -- and its fertility rate stands at 3.7 births in a woman's lifetime. Meanwhile, Kerala's fertility rate has dropped to 2.0, the "replacement rate" that will eventually help stabilize its population.

 The success of education programs for women has been repeated elsewhere. In at least 26 impoverished countries, studies show that for every year of additional schooling a girl has, her desired family size and her actual family size are lower.

 In addition to more education, women need better access to modern contraceptives. Women who have a large number of pregnancies have a higher risk of dying, and many women have poor health because their first pregnancies occur when they are too young and their second pregnancies come too soon after those initial births. In fact, 500,000 women die from pregnancy-related causes each year around the world. The Cairo accord aims to help get family planning services to those who need them most.

 The consensus at Cairo on these issues means that governments are more likely to fund and implement this U.N. population plan. If they do, I am confident that the Cairo conference will long be remembered for its historic contributions to preserving our planet, not its passing acrimony over abortion.

Anna Eshoo represents California's 14th Congressional District.

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