By Sarah Edmonds and Heather F. McClintock, PhD
World Population Day was established on July 11, 1987 by the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme to acknowledge that the world’s population had reached 5 billion people. In current times, the population increases by approximately 227,000 people a day. An aim of World Population Day has been to highlight issues related to population growth such as exacerbating food and water shortages, reducing our ability to combat climate change, a continuation of intergenerational poverty, and—as this year’s World Population Day theme stresses—a lack of access to reproductive health care. Though the global population continues to rise, specific areas across the globe are noticing sharply reduced fertility rates that has led to concerns about the economic strain of a reduced national and global population and has damaged the socio-cultural pride that often accompanies population growth. Concerns over either increased and decreased population growth (depending on geographic area) have, in the past, led governments to enact dangerous and unethical population-based policy interventions. These population-based interventions often infringe on the human right to life and bodily autonomy. During this past World Population Day, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) took the opportunity to urge restraint before nations enact such reactionary measures.
The right to bodily autonomy is one that has, historically, been provided only to select groups across the globe. Women, in particular, are still fighting for the ability to make decisions about their own health, livelihoods, and futures. The COVID-19 panedmic has caused dangerous setbacks regarding women-based public health programs such as initiatives to stop female genital mutilation and to improve reproductive education and health in high-risk communities. Even before this, reproductive rates across the globe have been fluctuating with 23 nations—including Spain and Japan—expected to halve their total population in less than 80 years.
As the pandemic continues, there should be a greater focus on increasing and directing resources towards programs and interventions that protect family planning services, reproductive health and education services, and women’s health and safety organizations. Differing attitudes towards women as well as towards individuals who fall outside of the male/female binary have caused setbacks in global gender-equality initiatives. That is why organizations such as the UNFP, the Commission on the State of Women, and the International Women’s Health Coalition are vital to ensuring that reconstruction after COVID-19 proceeds equitably so that people of all genders receive access to sustainable quality healthcare and health safety. We must protect, rebuild, and improve the quality of life and safety of women, persons who are gender noncomforming, and children across the globe far before acting on any reactionary concern about a declining population.