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ICPD 25: Time To Start Talking About Population Again

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Campaigners argue sustainable population goals and reproductive health and rights are “inextricably linked”

Representatives from Population Matters will attend the Nairobi Summit on ICPD 25 next week, taking the message that securing sustainable population through rights-based action is essential to development, and raising concerns that failure to recognise this has led to the promised benefits for people and the environment being delivered too little, too late. Population Matters is calling for the full impacts of our still-growing human population (1) to be considered in all such international fora.

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The Summit marks the anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, which placed reproductive health and rights, as well as women's empowerment and gender equality at the heart of the development agenda. ICPD set out a Programme of Action intended to secure ambitious goals regarding family planning uptake and child and maternal health (2). Despite some progress, 25 years on, most of its goals have not yet been met:

  • The proportion of women using modern contraceptives has increased by only 6% - from 52% globally to 58% - today
  • Almost half of all pregnancies are estimated to be unintended
  • More than 800 women die every day from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth (3).

The Cairo programme established an ongoing emphasis on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) - including the right of all people to freely decide how many children to have and when (a principle endorsed by Population Matters). It also acknowledged the potential problems arising from those choices:

"In the exercise of this right, [prospective parents] should take into account the needs of their living and future children and their responsibilities towards the community." (Paragraph 7.3 [4])

The programme was also explicit in its support for the linking of population policies and sustainability, calling on states to:

"promote appropriate policies, including population-related policies, in order to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Principle 6 [4])

Reproductive health and rights and climate

These issues do not feature as part of the Nairobi confernece agenda, however (5).

Population growth – driven substantially by large family size – is now recognised by a growing body of scientists as playing a key role in numerous significant environmental problems.

  • Last week, 11,000 scientists signed a Climate Emergency Warning calling for action to address population growth through voluntary means as a key mechanism to fight climate change (6).
  • A major international study in 2017 ranked universal access to female education and family planning as the number one most effective, currently available practical solution for cutting climate emissions, due to their effects in reducing population growth (7).
  • The Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in May 2019 identified population growth as a key indirect driver of massive biodiversity loss and called for “transformational change” to address such drivers (8).
  • Research published in the July 2017 Proceedings of US National Academy of Sciences concluded that “the ultimate drivers of those immediate causes of biotic destruction [are] human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich.” (9)
  • The World Scientists Warning to Humanity of November 2017, endorsed by more than 20,000 scientists, identified “continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats". The Warning lists 13 policy measures essential to safeguarding our future, including the provision of family planning and girls’ education to reduce fertility (10).

Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:

“Family planning and development policy must be rooted in sexual and reproductive health and rights, within a broader framework focussed on the individual and choice. That’s a given. However, the Cairo programme recognised those choices have wider consequences, but did not act upon that acknowledgement. 25 years on, we’re dealing with the existential threats of climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction. It’s starkly clear that isolating population and family planning policy from environmental policy has been bad for people and planet.

“Population Matters absolutely endorses a renewed commitment to empowerment for women and girls, to SRHR, and to achieving every one of Cairo’s specific goals. It is a tragedy they have not been met, and efforts to achieve them must be redoubled by all responsible governments – especially given the added challenge of the Trump administration’s re-imposition of the retrograde ‘Global Gag’, cutting US Aid to family planning programmes.

“But we must end the siloing of environment and population policy: the two are inextricably linked and synergistic. In particular, we must shake-off the 25-yr-old shibboleth that a commitment to individual rights and empowerment is incompatible with a commitment to securing a sustainable population as an end in itself. That just isn’t so. The Cairo conference unfortunately and unintentionally led to the formalisation of that idea. Nairobi offers the opportunity to act upon its neglected call to recognise the needs of future children.”

Population Matters is calling for:

  • An affirmation by Summit participants of the Cairo principle that family size choices must take into account consequences and responsibilities for the future and the wider community
  • An affirmation that the basis of family planning policy must include inter-generational and environmental justice
  • An international framework to guide and support national and global policy to secure sustainable population and manage population dynamics
  • Embedding of positive measures to address population through SRHR means in the implementation and work of existing UN frameworks and bodies, such as the SDGs, and in national and international policies intended to protect the environment.

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