Women’s Rights & World Population: A Conversation With Suzanne Ehlers


Suzanne Ehlers is President of Population Action International (PAI). Image Credit: PAI

Figuring out that to effectively curb our exploding population growth we must invest in women’s health & rights is nothing new. But for some reason, we still have not ensured that we actually make those investments.

In fact, just last week the United Nations announced in its “World Population Prospects” report that by 2050, global population will reach 9.6 billion, a 300 million people increase from the 2010 revision. So how do women’s rights factor into all of this? I spoke with Suzanne Ehlers, President of Population Action International (PAI) about that, and why Americans should be listening.

The United Nations Population Division announced that the world population is expected to increase to 9.6 billion by 2050. You state in your blog post that this presents “a big opportunity for more and more women to take charge of their lives.” What is this “opportunity”, and why should Americans care?

As humans, we should all care about the basic rights of women to make decisions about their lives. Right now, an estimated 222 million women in developing countries who want to prevent pregnancy lack access to modern contraception. Efforts to ensure that these women get access to the family planning and reproductive health services they want not only help them to realize and fulfill these rights, but also to create healthier families, and in turn, stronger communities and countries.

As Americans, investments in family planning make our foreign aid dollars go further and save more lives. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) data from seven countries shows that for every dollar invested in family planning and reproductive health, there is significant savings in education, immunization, water and sanitation, and malaria. Savings range from $2 in Ethiopia to up to $9 in Bolivia.

Besides, though the need for family planning is greatest in the developing world, nearly half of pregnancies in the U.S .are also unintended.  Surely that is something we should all care about.

Why is it that even though we established a roadmap in Cairo over fifteen years ago, today in Washington attacks on women’s reproductive health, both globally and domestically, persist as foreign aid keeps getting cut?

There are always going to be people who want to hold women back, out of fear, discrimination, deeply embedded norms that view women as less, as not equal. And that’s why strong advocacy on this issue continues to be paramount. The Cairo conference was a milestone in that it framed reproductive health as a fundamental right, but in reality, we still have work to do to live up to that promise. It’s about accountability, and about pushing the U.S. and international governments – day in and day out – to live up to the commitments they made almost 20 years ago.

Attacks on reproductive health may seem small in the face of the economic and political crises of the day, but we must remember that it is small acts that contribute to the big, sweeping changes. Something as simple as being able to go to a nearby clinic and get birth control may not seem like a big event. But multiply that by hundreds of millions of women, and it’s a start to making the world more equal, and more sustainable.

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