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The Planet

December 1997, Volume 4, number 10

Girls' Education, womens' Rights Linked to Family Planning Success

by Sarah Fallon

With the strains that humans place on air, water and other environmental resources, it's crucial that women be more educated. Seem like a non sequitur? It's not: The more empowered women are -- the more education they have, the more power they have at home and in the public sphere, the greater their access to birth control -- the fewer children they have. And, since the world's population has tripled since the end of World War II, the Sierra Club can ill afford to ignore the correlation between women's rights and population.

"The Club's approach to international family planning is an integrated one," says Marceline White, International Population Campaign Director. "Not only do we support funding for birth control, we also believe that family-planning programs should take into account why women might not seek out birth control in the first place."

The more education a woman has, the more likely she is to use some form of birth control, according to the Population Reference Bureau. In Pakistan, for example, women with secondary school educations are 20 percent more likely to use birth control than those with no formal education. In the Philippines, educated women are 30 percent more likely to use birth control.

Using birth control to space children gives everyone a better chance. When children are born more than two years apart, the mother has time to recover and her chances of dying from complications during pregnancy or childbirth decrease dramatically. Furthermore, children born closer together are more likely to suffer from malnutrition, arrested development, and die from infectious diseases. And, because younger women's bodies are not yet mature enough to handle a pregnancy, delaying the age of first birth helps prevent premature and low birth-weight babies. Delaying childbearing and spacing pregnancies both work to slow population growth; women who do one or both of those things have fewer children.

But there are obstacles to contraception besides lack of education: In some cultures, men fear that contraception gives a woman too much freedom and reduces her husband's control over her. Promoting birth control in these situations requires exceptional sensitivity to these issues.

Also, in many places women have few opportunities for social recognition except through their children. A lack of education, empowerment and economic independence all contribute to this view of women as mere vessels for children.

The Indian state of Kerala is often held up as an example of social policies that empower women and the rest of the citizenry. As the literacy rate in Kerala has increased, the number of children per woman has declined. One reason women have fewer children is that they can provide a higher level of education for each of them. Kerala also has a good pediatric health care program. A lower infant mortality rate reduces the need to have many children to increase the chance that at least one survives. The government of Kerala didn't set out to improve the status of women simply to lower the country's birthrate, but sought to promote all facets of social development, including increasing opportunities for women."The government wanted to invest in quality of life," says White.

Economic opportunity is as important as literacy; women need economic opportunity to take control of their lives -- and modify their desired family size. So-called micro-enterprise banks, like Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, make very small loans to groups of five individuals who use the loan to start their own small business.
If anyone defaults, the rest will be cut off, so the social pressure to run a successful business and keep making payments to ensure the viability of the enterprise is great. Women are able to take advantage of these loans -- 45 percent of small-loan recipients are women -- and they use the money to start home-based activities such as beer brewing, knitting, dressmaking and retail-trading. With the opportunity for greater financial independence and responsibility, women tend to have fewer children.

The Club has long been a supporter of equal rights and empowerment for women. It supported the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978, and has opposed policies restricting access to contraception or to abortion, or that constrict the roles of men and women. Members of the Club's population committee are also trying to expand this emphasis to include the need for better access to female and maternal health care, not just birth control. "'Whole woman's health' is essential for women's access to economic opportunities, which impacts rates of birth," says Cathi Tactaquin, Population Committee member.

Today, a key focus of the Sierra Club's efforts to improve conditions for women worldwide is to put pressure on Congress to ratify CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. A kind of international bill of rights for women, CEDAW provides the basis for ensuring that women have the right to vote, the right to run for election and the right to education and employment. It calls for the modification of practices that harm and subjugate women and it affirms women's reproductive rights.

For example, CEDAW specifically prohibits pregnancy as a job screening tool. But because Mexican law requires that women receive three months of paid maternity leave, employers often hire a woman on a succession of 28-day contracts renewable only if the woman proves she is not pregnant. However, Mexico is a CEDAW signatory, so it will be easier to draft a law that outlaws this sort of pregnancy testing.

"The United States has yet to ratify CEDAW," says Tactaquin, "which means that the U.S. does not consider itself under any obligation to create laws with the provisions of CEDAW in mind. As long as [Sen. Jesse] Helms chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it's never going to get out of committee."

The good news is that the world's population growth rate is declining. Women in the United States are having fewer and fewer children, and in India the number of children per woman has dropped from 5.3 in 1970 to 3.6 in 1992. Use of contraception is growing, yet there are still 120 million women who want, but do not have, access to it, says Tactaquin. And demographics may be working against us: The number of women of child-bearing age is growing faster than the general population. That's why it is crucial that governments increase their spending on family planning and other women's empowerment programs to ensure that the slowing growth trend does not halt or reverse.

To take action: Write your senators, your representative and President Clinton and tell them to ratify CEDAW.

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