Women, Population & the Environment : Call For A New Approach

Date Published: July 22, 2006

We are troubled by recent statements and analyses that single out population size and growth as a primary cause of global environmental degradation.

We believe the major causes of global environmental degradation are:

  • Economic systems that exploit and misuse nature and people in the drive for short-term and short-sighted gains and profits.

  • The rapid urbanization and poverty resulting from migration from rural areas and from inadequate planning and resource allocation in towns and cities.

  • The displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples by agribusiness, timber, mining, and energy corporations, often with encouragement and assistance from international financial institutions, and with the complicity of national governments.

  • The disproportionate consumption patterns of the affluent the world over. Currently, the industrialized nations, with 22% of the world's population, consume 70% of the world's resources. Within the United States, deepening economic inequalities mean that the poor are consuming less, and the rich more.

  • Technologies designed to exploit but not to restore natural resources.

  • War making and arms production which divest resources from human needs, poison the natural environment and perpetuate the militarization of culture, encouraging violence against women.

Environmental degradation derives thus from complex, interrelated causes.

Demographic variables can have an impact on the environment, but reducing population growth will not solve the above problems. In many countries, population growth rates have declined yet environmental conditions continue to deteriorate.

Moreover, blaming global environmental degradation on population growth helps to lay the groundwork for the re-emergence and intensification of top-down, demographically driven population policies and programs which are deeply disrespectful of women, particularly women of color and their children.

In Southern countries, as well as in the United States and other Northern countries, family planning programs have often been the main vehicles for dissemination of modern contraceptive technologies. However, because so many of their activities have been oriented toward population control rather than women's reproductive health needs, they have too often involved sterilization abuse; denied women full information on contraceptive risks and side effects; neglected proper medical screening, follow-up care, and informed consent; and ignored the need for safe abortion and barrier and male methods of contraception. Population programs have frequently fostered a climate where coercion is permissible and racism acceptable.

Demographic data from around the globe affirm that improvements in women's social, economic and health status and in general living standards, are often keys to declines in population growth rates. We call on the world to recognize women's basic right to control their own bodies and to have access to the power, resources, and reproductive health services to ensure that they can do so.

National governments, international agencies and other social institutions must take seriously their obligation to provide the essential prerequisites for women's development and freedom. These include:

1. Resources such as fair and equitable wages, land rights, appropriate technology, education, and access to credit.

2. An end to structural adjustment programs, imposed by the IMF, the World Bank and repressive governments, which sacrifice human dignity and basic needs for food, health and education to debt repayment and 'free market', male dominated models of unsustainable development.

3. Full participation in the decisions which affect our own lives, our families, our communities and our environment, and incorporation of women's knowledge systems and expertise to enrich these decisions.

4. Affordable, culturally appropriate, and comprehensive health care and health education for women of all ages and their families.

5. Access to safe, voluntary contraception and abortion as part of broader reproductive health services which also provide pre- and post-natal care, infertility services, and prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and AIDS.

6. Family support services that include childcare, parental leave and elder care.

7. Reproductive health services and social programs that sensitize men to their parental responsibilities and to the need to stop gender inequalities and violence against women and children.

8. Speedy ratification and enforcement of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as well as other UN conventions on human rights.

People who want to see improvements in the relationship between the human population and natural environment should work for the full range of women's rights; global demilitarization; redistribution of resources and wealth between and within nations; reduction of consumption rates of polluting products and processes and of non-renewable resources; reduction of chemical dependency in agriculture; and environmentally responsible technology. They should support local, national and international initiatives for democracy, social justice and human rights.