Women Need Support to Break Vicious Cycle of
Environmental Degradation, Poverty, Poor Health and High Fertility

The world's poorest regions face a double challenge: continued population growth and potentially severe water and food shortages. This is one of the findings of The State of World Population 2001 report, which recommends far greater support to women in developing countries to help them protect the natural resources on which they largely depend and to improve their health and education, which will lead to smaller, healthier families.

World population has doubled since 1960 to 6.1 billion people and continues to grow by about 77 million people a year. Almost all of this growth is taking place in developing countries, much of it in the poorest regions. Six countries account for half of all growth: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

While fertility in developing countries as a whole has dropped by half since 1969, it remains highest in the poorest areas and among the poorest people in these countries. The poorest areas are also among the most severely challenged by soil and water degradation, and the most severely affected by food deficits. According to the report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), failures to provide health care, education and other services, are major contributing factors.

Although women make up half of the world's agricultural work force, they have little control over the land they farm and the water they use. In Africa, women produce most staple crops; in Southeast Asia, women comprise 90 per cent of the labour for cultivating rice. But national laws and local customs often deny women the right to secure title or inherit land, which means they have no collateral to raise credit and improve their conditions.

Poverty, precarious land tenure and lack of expert support discourage women from investing in newer technologies or more sustainable practices such as crop rotation, fallow periods, or reforestation. According to the report, these conditions encourage the clearing of woodlands for fuel and short-term income, and the cultivation of fast-growing cash crops such as cotton, which quickly exhaust the land.

In effect, many women are stuck in a vicious spiral of environmental degradation, poverty, high fertility, poor health, and limited opportunities. Degraded environments not only threaten women's health, especially reproductive health which is extremely sensitive to pollution, but also increase the time women must spend to find water and fuel and produce food.

The report says women need legal and social support for land ownership, tenure and inheritance, and increased access to credit and services for agricultural and resource management.

Women also need better access to reproductive health information and services, including voluntary family planning. Inadequate funding for such programmes contributes to high fertility and maternal mortality rates in many developing countries. Currently, available services cannot even meet existing needs for family planning; needs are expected to increase rapidly in the next 20 years as young populations come of age and demand grows.

Integrating reproductive health and environmental services for women is becoming increasingly popular, the report says, and should be further encouraged—especially in places on the frontier of development and around the world's 25 most sensitive "biodiversity hotspots," which are under increasing threat.

Women themselves are often leading the way in finding environmentally friendly solutions. In India, women are heading rural movements to promote sustainable farming practices and resist large-scale agricultural operations that rely on intensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can harm the environment and health.

In Kerala, India, and parts of Sri Lanka, communities with access to better technology, health care and education have made good use of them to conserve resources and build viable rural communities, the report says. These communities feature less gender inequality, later marriage, lower fertility and slower population growth despite low incomes.

The report calls for urgent action to mobilize the resources needed to carry out the action plan of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) to improve health and education, promote women's advancement, guarantee reproductive choice, stabilize population growth and reduce pressure on natural resources. Current resources for reproductive health and population programmes are well below the $17 billion needed each year. While developing countries are providing most of their share, support from donor countries is less than half of the $5.7 billion that the ICPD agreed is required.