Sunday, February 19, 2012

Seven Billion, and Counting - What to do about it?

We humans now number seven billion, and we are growing fast. Nearly 80 million people are added to the earth’s population each year. Relentless population growth affects many of our current problems, from food scarcity in poor countries, water shortages, pollution, habitat loss and species extinction, climate change, degradation of the oceans and lakes, and human & animal suffering. The welfare of humans is deeply linked to nature, and our propensity to ignore this has been disturbing.

Population Connection (formerly know as ZPG – for Zero Population Growth) is an organization working to understand the reasons for population growth. Its goal is to educate the public – including policy makers – on solutions to the problem, including access to voluntary family planning, education for girls as well as boys worldwide, and ensuring social justice for women and the poor.

In the February issue of The Reporter (the magazine of Population Connection) the theme is child marriage. Ten million young girls become brides every year throughout the world, having children while children. Child marriage is defined as the marriage of a person before the age of 18. The practice is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In Mali, 71% of girls are married before they turn 18. In Bangladesh, the median age of marriage for girls is 15, and 4 out of five girls first meet their husbands at their weddings, according to The Reporter. Child marriage can have serious health implications – in Africa, pregnancy related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15-19 year old girls. Many girls have sex before their first period. An estimated 100,000 girls each year develop a fistula, or opening, between the bladder and vagina because of obstructed labor in childbirth. The pelvis is too small, incompletely formed. As a result, they leak urine constantly and can become social outcasts. There are heroic doctors and nurses who spend their lives on surgical repair of this problem, but the hospitals and know-how for fistula repair are scarce.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is hopeful that the practice of child marriage can end in a generation. He has said “I am confident that change can happen very quickly. No woman who has had the benefit of staying at school and marrying later in life can inflict child marriage on her daughters.”

National Geographic published an article on child marriage in the June 2011 issue, with arresting photographs.

John Bongaarts, a demographer at the Population Council and the National Academy of Sciences, calculates that if the average age of childbearing increased by 5 years, future population size could be reduced by 15-20 percent. This is a striking finding. If readers want to help with this issue, they can visit Population Connection on line, or call them at 800-767-1956. Population Connection has classroom curricula for teachers of social studies and environmental studies that are used in the US and all over the world.

The issue of access to voluntary family planning has been at the top of the news recently here at home, with Obama’s push to give women free access to birth control through their insurance policies. The pushback we have seen against voluntary family planning harks back to Margaret Sanger’s jailing in 1917 for distributing the diaphragm. In 2012, is this absurd, or what? Nicolas Kristof, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, Feb. 12th, aptly called it ‘pelvic politics’. I see it as a woman’s issue, a man’s issue, and a big environmental issue as well. The Sierra Club has declined to take on US population growth directly and forcefully, fearing being criticized as racist. They see it as an issue about immigration. I prefer the stand of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is working to save a vast diversity of wild animals and plants, to secure a future for all species hovering on the brink of extinction. Toward this end, among other educational programs, they hand out endangered species condoms, and have a ‘hump smarter hotline’ (800-628-2399) to ‘make sure that this one roll in the sheets doesn’t push some poor creature into extinction’. Check it out - they have a great message. They point out that 50% of pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and more people conceive a child on New Year’s eve than any other time in the year. Obviously, there are ways to talk about population and the environment without being racist. Wake up, Sierra Club! We could all use some new thinking on these issues. Despite our smaller families, our resource heavy lifestyles make us part of the problem.
Sadja Greenwood, MD back issues on this blog!

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