A standard objection to population action is that it is ‘white men telling black women what to do’. There are assumptions in this point of view that don’t hold up. These are, that the issue has only ever occurred to white people: that black people do not want any interruption to their procreation: and that any attempt to reduce fertility will be unwelcome and coercive.
The following two articles give the lie to this. They are both written by black women who have a very different view on the matter.
The first appeared in The Guardian 25 March 2015 under the heading ‘Westerners don’t appreciate how amazing contraception is’, by Faustina Fynn-Nyame, at that time Kenya country director, Marie Stopes International.
Then follows a video of Dr. Natalia Kanem of the UNFPA, making points very similar to those made by Jonathan Porritt in his talk to Yearly Meeting in2021, about the numbers of women who have no autonomy over their own bodies
Westerners don’t appreciate how amazing contraception is
When Alima was 15-years-old she travelled to the Ghanaian capital to work as a head porter in the market, planning to save money to buy household items for her marriage. But girls working in the market often end up sleeping rough. Some end up pregnant because they are raped or forced to exchange sex for somewhere warm to sleep.
Fortunately, Alima heard about our clinic from peer educators who we had trained to raise awareness in the market. She went for counselling with the nurse and decided to take up a method. Alima spoke to our team about what she could do. We made some suggestions, and in the end she chose a five-year implant. Instead of buying crockery with her savings, she decided to go home and enroll in school.
Working in clinics in Ghana and Kenya, I have seen the consequences when contraception is not available. I’ve seen women dying in childbirth, mutilating their bodies or risking their lives with backstreet abortions. In developed countries such as the UK, contraceptive use has plateaued between 60% and 80%. In east Africa, if current trends continue, it will take another 45 years to reach 60%. While in west Africa, where I am from, the same rates will not be achieved for 500 years. That’s the year 2515.
I believe that being able to choose if and when to have children is a basic human right. Economically, it makes sense; for every additional pound invested in contraception, the cost of pregnancy-related care is reduced by £1.47. In fact, just last year a leading economist associated with the Copenhagen Consensus Centre thinktank rated investments in sexual and reproductive health as “phenomenal” and described family planning as “inexpensive with clear benefits”.
But you also cannot underestimate the significance of contraception in giving girls and women control over their lives and futures. When girls have the choice, like Alima, they have children later. This means they can finish their education, become financially independent and contribute to society. They can space their births further apart, which means healthier lives for them and their babies.
In my jobs as country director for Marie Stopes in Kenya and Ghana, I have met amazing girls and women whose stories make my heart swell. Women like Miriam who, after having four children one after the other, was at risk of becoming homeless when her husband became too ill to support them. Then she met one of Marie Stopes’ community workers and decided to use a copper IUD to protect her for years to come. We were also able to put her in contact with a women’s microfinance company that helped her find the money to set up a kiosk selling tinned food, soft drinks and biscuits. She told me : “Now I am using contraception I am finally in control of my life. Instead of begging on the streets, I can go to work and look after myself, my husband and my children.”
Yet 225 million women around the world who don’t want to get pregnant are not using any form of contraception, with some areas much worse affected than others. As a result, every day, around 800 women are dying from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. When a mother dies her children’s best hope for survival dies with her.
As someone who has lived and worked in clinics from Brixton to Accra, the main difference I see is that women in the UK are empowered. They can take control of what happens to their body and what they want from their futures. In countries such as Ghana and Kenya that agency is not there. But the women in Kenya and Ghana are brave because they are challenging the status quo. I meet girls with hope in their eyes and ambition in their voices, who give me the sense things can really change. They are challenging what their mother and grandmother, religious leader and husband tells them. Their husband may not be happy about their choices, he may even beat her until she’s black and blue but they are determined to create real change.
Women in the UK have such an advantage and they don’t even know it. They are far more educated about contraception and can make more informed choices. We need to make sure that girls the world over have the same opportunities.
The other article is from the blog of Earth Overshoot Day. The author Florence Blondel pulls no punches in her opinion of those who state that population action is racist
Earth Overshoot Day
Florence Blondel Population Voice
If we don’t have the conversation about our growing numbers, we will be doing an injustice not only to nature but to the women who are mostly expected to ‘reproduce and fill the earth’.
I am irked when organisations ignore talking about population or when they talk about it and totally misunderstand what it’s all about. I do not like when most assume that in low-income countries, or Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) in particular, where I am from, people do not mind the continuous unprecedented upsurge in numbers. Most people fighting against the discussion, especially people living in countries with high-income, make excuses like that’s racist, eugenics etc. I find the racist point an annoyance. What’s racist about it? Have you been to our countries? Have you been to the rural areas which make up most of the countries? Have you smelt the stinking poverty and hunger? Noticed children hanging around their mothers hungry? Found a household with about 5 children under 5 years and another in the womb – with oldest girls married off at 13?
Do you know how there, women are just mostly reduced to childbearing and rearing? Young girls married off early for a bar of soap, half a kilogram of sugar? All cost less than £1.
Do you know the future prospects of most of the people in rural areas? To have no confidence in the future? It is a vicious cycle out there, and no, people will not even afford to pay £6 to cover some student supplies required every term to participate in free government schools. Do you know that the school dropout rate is high for those few who get a chance to even start school?
If this writing comes off as a rant, you are right. It is a rant. Because it is a crucial topic I am passionate about. Why would you be against anyone honestly talking about population when its growth mostly oppresses young girls and women?
We should have this conversation. It has been gagged, which is insane – and as a woman (from rural Uganda), I find this gagging offensive. As someone who studied population issues from all angles including Sexual and Reproductive Health and the environment , and looked at projections, I cannot ignore the fact that my continent, especially my region, Sub Saharan Africa, is projected by the UN to have the largest increase in population, doubling by 2050 from 1.6 billion currently to 2.1 billion in 2050 and almost 4 billion in 2100. This is only the medium variant projection. Now imagine a scenario when it’s the higher variant. That variant is possible, especially if no serious efforts are made to empower women, through education, employment opportunities and quality family planning services.
All this growth – to me – means women getting used for their uteruses. It’s what most of us are reduced to in patriarchal societies – where culture glorifies importance in society by the number of children a MAN, who doesn’t carry the child in their womb, has. It’s the man whose back is patted for having many children. Now when you come to polygamous households, you’ll find women competing to bear the most children.
As a journalist who covered most parts of the country reporting on reproductive health issues, I met many women who were tired of the status quo. When you tell people not to talk about population, you’re binding us further in these senseless man-made societal standards. If you live in a high-income country, shame on you because you should know where you were in the 18th century before the demographic transition. That’s where some African countries are stuck, predominantly rural, having up to 7 children or more, lower expectation of life, no formal education, you name it!
Why can’t we get the benefits of the enlightenment like you did? Childbearing was among the factors that held many women back until they got access to those benefits. We also want to have a moment of progress and not always be among countries with high fertility rates which are genuine holdbacks. Most high-income countries are at replacement level (2.1 children per woman) and below. In those countries, women choose what to do, while in my region, it’s chosen for most of us – right from childhood.
Most lower-income countries have young age structures. Is my country prepared to meet the needs of the substantially growing numbers of children and young people (almost 50% under 15)? A lot of investment is needed to ensure that young people can become productive in society. Unfortunately, there’s still a great need to invest in QUALITY education, infrastructure, health, including family planning services and employment. We want to harness the demographic dividend (DD), something I have reported about throughout my journalism career, but how can we when our economic means are so fragile? Young people do not even have anything to save, yet savings and investments do matter for the coveted development.
Our leaders are excited by the youth bulge and seeing the dividend coming to fruition. But it’s not. When I first reported about this excitement in 2011, you’d think that almost a decade later, there would be a great deal of change – but alas, same old! We are obsessed with economic growth but that’s not even happening. Let’s not forget that the demographic dividend occurs when birth rates fall. But guess what, fertility rates are still high.
What will we have to face as so many young people in their reproductive years will have nothing to do? There are so many to support. When governments do not take a lead, the parents/guardians do as they are facing brutal necessities. Young girls who start menarche are married off – more like sold off – as early as 12 years old. One time while documenting stories on child marriage, a mother told me, “well my daughter just got married off at 14, for me I was married off at 13 years.”
Please start talking about population growth and its effects on the environment and on young girls and women. Much more could be done to ensure that all women have access to modern contraceptives and have the decisional autonomy over how many children they have. Guttmacher Institute estimates that about 218 million women in low-income countries do not want to become pregnant. They have no access to safe and effective modern contraceptives and are held back by ‘defenders’ like you, plus societal expectations hammered into us right from when we start crawling.
Population needs to be addressed globally. It’s no rocket science that the more of us there are, the more we consume. High-income populations consume more than those who do not have the means. So it makes sense that they should choose to have smaller families. In low-income regions, especially in Sub Saharan Africa, the more of us there are, the fewer the natural resources. We are decimating forests by the day and literally having endless wars with wildlife – wars we always win. With a population growing at 3% annually in Uganda, what chance does nature stand? Worse is the fact that young girls and women are held back – as fertility is sadly largely socially determined. This is not okay.
Let’s promote and support quality formal education because there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the longer girls stay in school and go up to secondary or higher, the better the chances of them not being constrained to mere child bearers and rearers, using modern contraceptives, autonomy, employment opportunities and a somewhat good foreseeable future which will get governments the economic development they so crave. Change is possible.
– Florence Blondel
See also this video of Dr. Natalia Kanem of the UNFPA.
This is on https://tinyurl.com/4jn4tr9z, and confirms what Jonathan Porritt said in his talk to Friends at BYM in 2011, about the numbers of women denied autonomy in respect of their own bodies
See also http://www.chak.or.ke/ , about family planning in Kenya