Twenty years ago, 179 countries signed onto a landmark United Nations program to slow global population growth by pledging to give women around the world greater control over their bodies, their fertility and their destinies.
So how did they do?
Globally, some signs are promising. Women are having fewer children, on average. Fewer women are dying during pregnancy or childbirth. Literacy rates are climbing, as most girls now enroll in primary school. More women than ever have entered the workforce and have a chance to vote.
Yet the discrepancies between the rich and the poor remains stark, according to a recently released 20-year report card on progress made since the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994.
About 1 billion people in more than 50 countries “have seen only limited gains in health and well-being since 1994, and some are poised to become poorer as the rest of the global population anticipates better livelihoods,” says the new report by the United Nations Population Fund.
“It is in these countries, and among poorer populations within wealthier countries, that women’s status, maternal death, child marriage and many other concerns of the [1994 Cairo conference] have seen minimal progress,” the 235-page report card concludes.
Despite common pledges two decades ago, the nations of the world have split into two paths. The wealthier ones, particularly European countries, and Far Eastern nations such as Japan and Korea see little or no population growth, resulting in an aging population. The poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Asia and a few places in Latin America continue to have rapid population growth and a young age structure. It is these countries that will bring 97 percent of the growth between now and 2050.
These growth patterns closely track how women and girls are treated in these countries.
The vast majority of underage and forced marriages occur in the poorest, most traditional societies, according to the report’s survey of 156 nations. Such early marriage results in more teenage pregnancies, especially among the poor and rural populations. Beginning motherhood so early, these adolescents are likely to bear more children during their lifetimes and their large families are less likely to climb out of poverty.
The report’s authors noted that the rate of global population growth is slowing, even if the number of people added to the planet every year is close to the all time high of 84 million a year.
“There were an estimated 5.7 billion people in the world at the time of the ICPD in 1994,” the authors write. “Global population has now reached 7.1 billion, and continues to grow by some 82 million people per year.”
Read the rest of Pulitzer Center grantee Ken Weiss’s article and view his project: “Beyond 7 Billion.”
In a cruel and brutally destructive practice, fishermen in Peru are killing dolphins to use as shark bait. “The shark meat is predominantly consumed within Peru, but the fins we’re told are being exported to the Far East for use as shark fin soup,” explains Pulitzer Center grantee Jim Wickens, who documents the slaughter in a documentary for Link TV.
The practice is illegal, but Jim estimates that some 10,000 dolphins are killed each year.
On the afternoon of April 23, 2013, workers at the Rana Plaza offices of BRAC Bank were concerned about recent cracks that had appeared in the walls of the building. Their manager ordered tellers to complete transactions they were working on and promptly evacuate. Hours later, the building would lie under an eight-story heap of rubble, taking 1,100 lives in perhaps the deadliest industrial disasters in history.
Read more from Pulitzer Center grantee Fred de Sam Lazaro about Bangladesh’s new garment factory laws, one year after the Rana Plaza collapse.
CHEAP CLOTHING, CHEAPER LIFE
It has been nearly a year since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh left more than 1,100 workers dead. Pulitzer Center grantee Fred de Sam Lazaro revisits the scene of the worst accident in the history of the garment industry and finds that it is pretty much business as usual.
In a report for the PBS NewsHour, Fred found that safety standards remain haphazard and that despite new government-mandated wage increases, actual pay is “still well below what is considered livable in Bangladesh.”
Even more troubling is Fred’s discovery that many Western clothing retailers who profit enormously from the labors of low-cost garment workers in Bangladesh have paid little more than lip service to improving conditions in this $20 billion a year industry.
LIVING REMINDERS OF A GENOCIDE
This month also marks the 20th anniversary of the events that triggered the Rwanda genocide. More than 800,000 men, women and children, most of them Tutsi, were slaughtered. And while the conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu has gradually healed, the scars remain.
The most conspicuous scars are those that belong to the thousands of amputees who survived the killing but serve as an unwelcome reminder of the country’s recent past. Pulitzer Center grantee Tomaso Clavarino documents the plight of these people who struggle today, often alone, on the margins of society. Tomaso’s work appeared in the Italian dailies La Stampaand Corriere della Sera and in the German weekly Der Spiegel.
A LANDMARK CASE IN THE PHILIPPINES
Last week, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld a controversial new law that, among other things, would provide free contraceptives to poor women. The ruling is seen as a significant blow to the Catholic Church, which fought against the legislation for 15 years. Officially known as the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, it guarantees universal access to modern contraception methods, sex education, and maternal care.
The immediate beneficiaries of the court’s ruling are the country’s women—especially women living in places like Tondo, a Manila slum district best known for the vast shantytown built on the perimeter of the city’s overflowing municipal dump.
Last year, as part of a long-term Pulitzer Center reporting project on the intersection of faith and public policy, I visited Tondo and spoke with women about their attitudes toward contraception and the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject. They shared their thinking—quite candidly—for this story inForeign Policy.
Until next week,