Commentary Human Rights

Seven Billion People: Every Conversation About Numbers Starts with Human Rights

Suzanne Ehlers

As we pass the seven billion mark, it’s easy to get caught up in numbers. But the only reason those numbers mean anything is because of the individual lives behind them. In order to make the most of this moment and all those to follow, we need to lead every conversation about numbers with rights.

This fall, the world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article part of a series commissioned by Rewire to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

If you haven’t heard by now, the world is adding its 7 billionth person on Oct. 31, 2011. A few months before this milestone, PAI took to the streets of Washington to find out what people thought about our growing population. Their reactions to 7 billion speak for themselves:


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“That’s a lot.”

“I’m surprised it’s gone up quite that fast.”

“More people will need more energy, more food.”

“Do we have enough funding for that?”

“It’s definitely going to affect each individual.”

While people were understandably awed by the numbers, their answers also revealed concern about how those numbers impact their — and all of our — lives. It’s a balance PAI has always tried to strike, between big picture demographics and the needs and rights of individuals. In other words, numbers matter, but people count.

When we undertook the first edition of the publication Why Population Matters in 1996, we saw an opportunity to open a conversation with population devotees, to help them unpack their numbers game and see a woman’s face at the center of it all. We also, importantly, saw an opportunity to talk to women’s rights advocates, who were suspicious of quantitative analyses that could lead to quota-based systems.

In the sixties and seventies, when population issues were gaining prominence, the concern was largely if not exclusively about numbers. Some devastating experiments were the outcome—coercion, sterilization, and blatant disregard for human rights. The “overpopulation” crusade suggested, however implicitly, that some people are superfluous, which PAI finds morally unacceptable.

In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, the world came around to a different way of thinking—framed fully within a rights-based context. But really, who lives their life by a UN mandate? The real benefits of that framework were conferred on women who had no knowledge of it. It showed up in small ways – in empowerment, in the way they lived their lives. In the way I live my life.

Fast forward to where we are now, facing renewed attacks in as hostile a climate as any of us can remember. Politically, there are relentless attacks on women’s rights and health. Economically, we are witnessing deep and irrevocable cuts to spending and foreign aid. Even the religious and cultural corner is waging newly energized attacks on contraception, though Catholics, for example, admit—in poll after poll—to using it widely.

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 having the status to make your own decisions about children—being able to get birth control at a nearby clinic—may not seem like a big event. But multiply that by billions of women the world over, and it is the foundation of a constant push to make the world more equal, better educated, more sustainable, more safe.

Any way you slice it, it comes down to women being valued and having the freedom to make good choices for themselves and their families. When they can’t, numbers problems ensue. This is true in high-fertility countries, where high birth rates create high maternal deaths and growing demands for resources and infrastructure. It’s equally true in low-fertility countries (or aging communities), where women are refraining from having children because society doesn’t offer a way to balance motherhood and their career. Tragically, this latter piece of the equation still plays out in dangerous ways, such as “missing girls” resulting from China’s one-child policy. The policy itself is troubling, but its effects also point to a broader societal challenge that women are not valued.

We have plenty to celebrate, of course. Look how far we’ve come in the US – just a few generations ago, child survival was not ensured. And looking ahead, much depends on the choices we make now. Family planning is far from a silver bullet, but on so many issues, it’s a critical part of the solution. And it’s what women are asking for as they deal with challenges from poverty to climate change to political instability.

Time and time again, in country after country, history has shown that if you give women the tools to have control over their lives, the numbers will follow. They solve the “population problem” on their own. No need for laws, no force necessary.  Make them healthy, make births safer, ensure their kids will live, give them access to contraception, and women opt for smaller families.

As we pass the seven billion mark, it’s easy to get caught up in numbers. But the only reason those numbers mean anything is because of the individual lives behind them. In order to make the most of this moment and all those to follow, we need to lead every conversation about numbers with rights.

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