Monday, 12 December 2011

7 billion human beings: Why gender equality matters more than ever!

This post by Angela Luci first appeared on Gender Debate.

The United Nations Population Division estimates that the world's population reached 7 billion around October 31, 2011. This milestone has an important impact on the worldwide economic and social equilibrium. Gender equality represents a major factor allowing countries to bear the challenges and to benefit from the opportunities of demographic dynamics. 

The recent birth of the 7th billion human being has been registered with mixed feelings all over the world.  The exponential population growth that could have been observed over the last 50 years as well as the UN projections for the future global population size are perceived as quite frightening in most countries. Indeed, the actual population size and the future population growth represent enormous challenges for countries of all development stages.

In developing countries, and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, a first important challenge is to provide an adequate agricultural organization to avoid famine, to provide clean water and to protect the environment.  Improving the access to health and education is another major challenge. This is where gender equality comes into play. Especially for girls and young women,  access to family planning, to contraceptionto education and to the formal labour market is crucial not only for improving their own living conditions, but also in terms  of demographic dynamics.  Fertility and child mortality can be significantly reduced by fostering women’s economic empowerment and by containing patriarchal social norms (inheritance laws, genital mutilation, limited freedom of movement etc…). In addition, an improved access to education for girls and boys allows developing countries to exploit their enormous growth potential that comes along with the high proportion of young people at working age (demographic bonus).

In emerging countries, rapid industrialization and urbanization represent a major development challenge as these phenomena risk coming along with environmental damage, slum formation, unemployment, loose family networks, drug abuse and youth criminality. In this context, improving women’s access to the formal labour market as well as to health care and education is particularly important, as investments in these areas are likely to lead to later marriages, less teenage pregnancies and more stable family structures. This helps accelerating the trend to smaller families and boosts investments in the education and health of children. Providing economic and educational opportunities for women thus leads to a win-win situation for all of society.

In developed countries, low fertility and high life expectancy represent the major demographic challenges. Population ageing certainly is a worldwide phenomenon, but implies a particular problem for developed countries, as the current low fertility rates make it difficult to finance pay-as-you go pension systems in the next future. Providing women with possibilities to combine work and family life has been identified as an important factor to enable parents to realize their fertility intentions. Moreover, providing women with an independent income, which allows them to make adequate social security contributions and private savings, can be seen as the best instrument to battle old-age poverty in developed countries (which concerns mainly women).

Hence, women's access to decent jobs with income and career perspectives emerges as a key factor to tackle the challenges of demographic dynamics. This holds for developed countries as much as for emerging and developing countries. 

This article was inspired by the symposium “The Seven Billionth Human: What Does This Birth Mean” on October 14, 2011, organized by the Hopkins Population Center and the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health.

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