The theme for this year’s World Population Day — which falls today (July 11) — is ‘Unleashing the power of gender equality: Uplifting the voices of women and girls to unlock our world’s infinite possibilities’. The theme recognizes the crucial link between empowering women and girls and resolving demographic problems and how discussions about population issues often ignore women despite this link. The UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA) 2023 State of World Population report recognizes that both narratives that problematize overpopulation and under-population run the risk of violating women’s choices and their reproductive rights. While in Pakistan we often hear about the many problems that overpopulation causes, globally the era of population growth is approaching its peak due to declining fertility rates among women.
In the early 1970s, women had on average 4.5 children each, but in 2023 fertility rates have declined to around 2.3 children per woman, according to the UN. This dramatic change in fertility rates has been made possible by empowering women in terms of their reproductive rights, giving them greater control over how many children they chose to have and when. However, Pakistan is somewhat of an outlier when it comes to this trend. While fertility rates in the country have declined, from 6.8 children per woman in 1960 to 3.3 children per woman in 2023, the current fertility rate means our population is projected to double in just 35 years, according to the UN Population Fund’s World Population Dashboard. This is more than twice as fast as the dashboard’s projected global population annual doubling time of 76 years.
This rate of increase will put added pressure on our already strained state resources. It is highly unlikely that we will manage to double the amount of food, energy, jobs and water available to us in just 35 years. Furthermore, the current population growth rate is likely driven by the lack of reproductive rights among Pakistani women. According to the World Population Dashboard, the unmet need for family planning rate among women aged 15-49 in Pakistan is at 11 per cent, compared to a global rate of 9.0 per cent. Any strategy that seeks to deal with our population challenges will thus have to overcome the gap when it comes to access to family planning and contraception in Pakistan. This not only means addressing the shortcomings in our healthcare networks but also doing more in terms of challenging cultural attitudes and norms that stigmatize family planning and value having more children even at the expense of women’s reproductive choices.