Statement by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the global launch of State of World Population 2023
19 April 2023
19 April 2023
Dear Vice-President Suica,
Dear panel members,
Dear colleagues and friends – including those who are watching this launch event virtually.
World population is radically re-ordering itself.
In November, the human family surpassed 8 billion people – the largest population the world has ever known. At the same time, the global average fertility rate is the lowest in living memory.
We are living in a period of extreme demographic diversity. Two-thirds of people live in a place with below-replacement fertility. Others live in countries experiencing vigorous population growth. Some countries have a median age of around 50, others around 15.
The ranking of the world’s most populous countries will change significantly over the next 25 years. For example, as we speak, India’s population is overtaking China’s.
Everyone wants to know what all of this means, and without a clear answer, there is a serious danger that human rights, and particularly reproductive rights, will be undermined.
That is already happening in some places, with calls for limiting family size, bans on contraception in public hospitals, women being urged to step away from their careers to become mothers. Yet women are also clapping back to insist that they are not merely baby factories.
Today, UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, is launching its flagship State of World Population report, titled 8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: The case for rights and choices.
The report has two clear messages: First, we need to shatter the myths about population.
Many say the world is overpopulated. They blame fertility rates for the climate crisis, for instance. In a recent survey, we found that the most commonly held views were that the global population is too large and fertility rates too high. According to that kind of logic, global warming is supposedly driven by proliferation of human beings on a planet of finite resources.
Yet this fallacy holds the wrong people to account. Just 10 percent of the world’s population is responsible for fully half of all greenhouse gas emissions. The countries with the highest fertility rates contribute least to global warming and suffer most from its impacts. A woman in the Sahel with seven children has likely had no impact on climate change, but she and her community will experience some of the fastest rising temperatures in the world. Focusing only on fertility rates also distracts from real solutions, like reducing consumption in wealthy countries.
Let’s also shatter the myth that low birth rates are the culprit behind ageing and related economic concerns. Blaming women for producing an insufficient supply of babies ignores much more viable solutions that can be implemented while respecting human rights. For example, ageing, low-fertility countries can increase productivity by achieving gender parity in the workforce, expanding access to affordable childcare, and by looking to migration to fill labour shortages.
These population myths distract us from a real and powerful story of progress: All populations are ageing, largely because we are living longer lives. Since 1990, the average life expectancy has increased by about a decade. The fertility rate varies because women are increasingly able to access reproductive health care.
Our report’s second main point: We’ve been asking the wrong question.
The question isn’t whether the human population is too large or too small. The question is: can everyone exercise their fundamental human right to choose the number and spacing of their children?
Sadly, the answer is a resounding no.
Our latest data show that 44 per cent – almost half – of women are unable to exercise bodily autonomy – unable to make choices about contraception, health care, and whether and with whom to have sex.
And globally, nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended; yet many women would like to have more children, and are unable to do so. The proportion of women who are actually able to meet their personal fertility aspirations is as low as one quarter in many low- and middle-income countries.
Why is this?
We at UNFPA see the reasons every day in our work supporting sexual and reproductive health services in over 130 countries.
UNFPA sees how young people still need basic information about their bodies and rights. We see how men and women struggle with limited contraceptive choice, or cannot access contraception at all. UNFPA knows, from our work with survivors of sexual violence, that the most violent expressions of gender inequality remain ubiquitous.
Experience and research show how structural conditions, like sexism in the workplace and home, contribute to high levels of involuntary childlessness. And there remain enormous gaps in the prevention and treatment of infertility.
History warns of the dangers of treating women’s reproductive capacities as a tool for those in power, from the horrors of fertility targets to eugenics to laws allowing husbands to rape their wives. Over and over, we have seen power over women’s bodies seized by patriarchal structures – sons, fathers, in-laws and the State. The global community must say “No” to such practices.
History also shows us that fear can be weaponized. Fears about overpopulation and underpopulation have long been used, and continue to be used, to exclude and harm people who may look different or live differently.
The world will not solve its greatest challenges by treating fertility rates as the problem.
Inequality is the problem. Inequality in who we count and whether or not we think they count.
Our report newly shows that half a million births every year take place among girls aged 10 to 14 years old – girls so young they might not realize they can even get pregnant. Girls too young to consent to sex; girls married off or abused, or both.
Until very recently, the world did not even measure pregnancies among girls this young.
For far too long, we have only interrogated the numbers but not asked what women want.
Let's finally start asking other questions of population data. Policymakers, please take note. The question is about inequality. It is about rights and choices. Who has them? Who doesn’t?
In the end, population is about people. Evidence abundantly shows that when people are availed of opportunities, when they are healthy, educated and able to exercise their rights, individuals and societies flourish.
When the rights, dignity and equal value of all people are truly respected and upheld, then we unlock a future of infinite possibilities.