Twenty years ago, 179 countries signed onto a landmark United Nations program to slow global population growth by pledging to give women around the world greater control over their bodies, their fertility and their destinies.
So how did they do?
Globally, some signs are promising. Women are having fewer children, on average. Fewer women are dying during pregnancy or childbirth. Literacy rates are climbing, as most girls now enroll in primary school. More women than ever have entered the workforce and have a chance to vote.
Yet the discrepancies between the rich and the poor remains stark, according to a recently released 20-year report card on progress made since the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994.
About 1 billion people in more than 50 countries “have seen only limited gains in health and well-being since 1994, and some are poised to become poorer as the rest of the global population anticipates better livelihoods,” says the new report by the United Nations Population Fund.
“It is in these countries, and among poorer populations within wealthier countries, that women’s status, maternal death, child marriage and many other concerns of the [1994 Cairo conference] have seen minimal progress,” the 235-page report card concludes.
Despite common pledges two decades ago, the nations of the world have split into two paths. The wealthier ones, particularly European countries, and Far Eastern nations such as Japan and Korea see little or no population growth, resulting in an aging population. The poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Asia and a few places in Latin America continue to have rapid population growth and a young age structure. It is these countries that will bring 97 percent of the growth between now and 2050.
These growth patterns closely track how women and girls are treated in these countries.
The vast majority of underage and forced marriages occur in the poorest, most traditional societies, according to the report’s survey of 156 nations. Such early marriage results in more teenage pregnancies, especially among the poor and rural populations. Beginning motherhood so early, these adolescents are likely to bear more children during their lifetimes and their large families are less likely to climb out of poverty.
The report’s authors noted that the rate of global population growth is slowing, even if the number of people added to the planet every year is close to the all time high of 84 million a year.
“There were an estimated 5.7 billion people in the world at the time of the ICPD in 1994,” the authors write. “Global population has now reached 7.1 billion, and continues to grow by some 82 million people per year.”