It’s Not (Just) About the Numbers

June 27, 2013

The planet is growing more crowded every day. In 2011, according to United Nations projections, we surpassed seven billion people. Projections at the time forecast passing another astounding milestone – nine billion – by mid-century.

Less than two years later, revised estimates put the world at closer to 9.6 billion by 2050, with most of the growth happening in developing nations like Nigeria – a country already hard-hit by climate change, water scarcity, and other environmental issues.

There are complex connections between population, access to reproductive health services, and human rights. Ahead of World Population Day (July 11), Resource Media assembled a diverse group of speakers to help illustrate how those connections affect communities around the globe.

Our webinar featured Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Weiss, who explored some of the connections between population and the environment last year in his landmark series on population, Beyond 7 Billion; Carmen Barroso, Regional Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region; Sandeep Bathala, Senior Program Associate for the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Global Health Initiative at The Wilson Center; and Kim Lovell, Director of the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program.

You can watch the webinar below. (Click the lower right corner for a full screen view.)




We didn’t have time to get to all the questions we received; here are responses from a couple of our speakers to questions we missed:

1.      What resistance to family planning do you encounter, and how do you resolve these issues?

Response from Sandeep Bathala, The Wilson Center

“Resistance to family planning stems from insufficient knowledge about contraceptive methods and how to use them, as well as fear of side effects and other health concerns. In some cases women also are afraid of opposition from their husbands, partners, or families. The comprehensive sexuality education offered by most PHE programs, which typically includes a component on communicating with your partner (or mother-in-law), help alleviate some of these obstacles to seeking voluntary family planning methods.”

Response from Kim Lovell, Sierra Club:

“I’ve seen resistance to family planning come in a variety of different forms, depending on the culture and the context.

“In India in 2009, we met a very young woman named Pinky who already had multiple daughters. She wasn’t using family planning because she wanted to keep having children until she had a son. In a culture where women marry into their husband’s families and men stay to take care of their parents in old age, a son was necessary social security. In this context, elevating the status and earning power of women and changing culture norms so that women can take care of their own aging families is the only pathway I see to increasing family planning acceptance and usage.

“In many countries around the world, resistance to family planning comes from a belief on behalf of politicians, religious figures, and others that sex is for procreation and a woman’s value is based on her childbearing abilities. Thus, the thinking goes that family planning encourages women to be ‘promiscuous’ and/or engage in sex outside of marriage, for pleasure, or for any other reason she may see fit, which is threatening to these groups. I believe these beliefs to be harmful to women, their autonomy, and their sexual health – the solution I see, again, is elevating the status of women through increased access to education, economic opportunity, and power in one’s family and community. How often are men questioned for having sex outside of marriage, without the intention of procreating, or simply for pleasure?

“I’ve also seen resistance to family planning come as a backlash to population control programs that incentivized or forced family planning on women. At one agency I visited with Sierra Club in India, the company changed hormonal contraceptive packaging to read ‘birth spacing pills’ rather than ‘birth control pills’ to increase receptivity among women/in a culture where memories of fertility control are still fresh. The solution to this problem, of course, is to ensure that family planning provision is entirely voluntary, with no exceptions. The ability to make this decision for one’s self a fundamental human right, as outlined at the ICPD in Cairo in 1994, and a variety of other international agreements since.”

2.     If tackling reproductive health and environmental issues together is such a good idea, why are there so few examples of projects that combine the two?

Response from Kim Lovell, Sierra Club:

“In my experience, many women’s rights activists are resistant to incorporating an environmental message/component in their work because of a) a past history of population control in the name of environmental/resource conservation that folks are afraid of hearkening back to, b) a belief that the rights and health of women are the only justifications needed to provide family planning, and c) that talking about fertility, population, or family planning as linked to climate and the environment places blame on women in high fertility regions for the climate impacts caused by those of us in the developed, low fertility world.

“But on the other side, environmental activists don’t want to talk about family planning and population EITHER because they already feel their issue to be controversial and a bit of a hard sell, and are resistant to adding another contentious issue (family planning = sex!) to their cadre of challenging conservation and climate asks. While I understand these concerns from both sides, I believe we would make greater progress in family planning, climate mitigation and adaptation, and development if the added benefit of integration were recognized.”

Response from Sandeep Bathala, The Wilson Center

“First, I think there are actually more PHE [population, health and environment] projects than we realize. In some cases, these integrated efforts are just not called population-environment programs even though they are working to meet the health and livelihood needs of populations while ensuring the sustainability of the environment upon which they depend.

“In addition, it has always been a challenge to get donors and development workers out of their silos and buy-in to integrated programs. That is one reason why the Environmental Change and Security Program works to bring people from different sectors together.

“More peer-reviewed research demonstrating the effectiveness of the PHE approach is needed to make the case for integration, but at least two articles have documented proven results:

“An Environmental Conservation article found that integrating family planning information, advocacy, and service delivery with coastal resources management yields better results than single-sector models that provide only family planning or coastal resources management services. You can read a synthesis of the article on our blog.

“Second, a case study in the Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine found that an integrated program in Nepal led to a significant increase in the use of both contraceptives and improved cookstoves. Stay tuned for our upcoming film on this project.”


Cat Lazaroff