Happy belated birthday to the 7th billion person on Earth. While we celebrate the hope that accompanies a new life, we also have to consider the magnitude of this milestone. There are over 7 Billion of us now. 7 Billion!! Scary number, and the fact that we crossed this milestone on Halloween, October 31, may be fitting.
As our population is growing, the resources needed to support life on Earth are either stagnant or diminishing. A growing population puts a growing strain on Earth’s resources and her environment. Climate change is just one of the glaring examples of how the growing human population has impacted our natural environment. Issues like climate change further exacerbate existing problems in poor areas because they can impact agriculture in the very countries that are already suffering from a shortage in food. Water shortage is yet another growing concern, and these kinds of issues can lead to a spiral of growing demand and diminishing supply. You don’t have to be an economist to know that this is not a good thing.
With this new milestone in population a growing list of global socio-economic issues and concerns are becoming ever more prevalent. In many parts of the world, the growth in population is accompanied by a growth in poverty and HIV/Aids. With numbers this large, and the problems so many, it can be daunting to even begin considering solutions. This is by no means an easy problem to solve, and nations and charitable organizations have been attempting to tackle these problems with limited success.
How this growing problem is of concern to the US
Growing populations will put a strain on resources that are already running low. If you think gas prices in the US are high now, imagine when we have to support another billion more people. With emerging markets like India and China showing tremendous growth in terms of economy and population, the demand for resources will continue to rise. The pain of dwindling resources amid growing populations is especially being felt in the least developed countries (LDCs). From not being able to have enough gas and electricity to even more basic needs like food and water, overpopulation will lead to social strife and quite possibly war. As more people struggle to survive in an ever more crowded Earth, conflicts are bound to occur. The US as one of the leading UN nations will have more conflicts to deal with. Additionally, the US as a leading donor nation will have to support more programs to help mitigate the new challenges brought on by the ever expanding global population.
What if the 7 billionth person was a baby girl? What kind of life is in store for her? If she is born in a developed country like the US or many western nations, she will probably have a chance at a bright future. However, if she is born in one of the least developed countries like Nepal, Bangladesh or many African nations, she will most likely face a life of tremendous struggle. Of course, this is assuming she and her mother make it successfully past her infancy. Infant mortality and maternal mortality are one of the leading causes of deaths for young girls and women in these countries.
Her childhood will probably involve a lot of work around the house or in the fields. If she is lucky enough to begin school, she will only attend up to a certain point. Even if she does well in school, she may still have to forgo further education in order to work at home or in the fields. She will probably have to give up on her childhood early in order to be married, and she will probably give birth while she is a child herself … and the cycle continues. If you think this is hyperbole, then you may not be aware of some of the staggering statistics on child brides around the world.
- In Southern Asia, 48%—nearly 10 million—of girls are married before the age of 18.
- In Africa, 42% of girls were married before turning 18.
Child Marriage Around the World
Percentage of girls marrying before the age of 18 (source: ICRW 2007)
1. Niger 76.6
2. Chad 71.5
3. Bangladesh 68.7
4. Mali 65.4
5. Guinea 64.5
6. Central African Republic 57.0
7. Nepal 56.1
According to the World Health Organization, in developing and least developed countries, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among women in their reproductive years. In the most developed nations in the world, 9 out of 100,000 women will die as a consequence of pregnancy. That number is 50 times higher at 450 for developing and least developed countries like Nepal. If women (and in many cases girls) had knowledge of preventive care or basic reproductive health, this kind of tragedy could be avoided. If these girls and young women were in school instead of in a marriage, this kind of problem could be avoided entirely.
What does it all mean?
We have already established that our Earth is kind of crowded. We have also established that the resources that we rely on to survive are dwindling. We also established that one of the key causes of overpopulation is the practice of early marriage for young girls and women in many parts of the world. There is a direct correlation between younger wives and more children, less education and poverty, discrimination of women and under-development. Supporting education for girls everywhere (especially these least developed countries) may not be a magic bullet for all of the ills of the world, but it is one heck of a place to start to solving these tough problems. By keeping these girls in school where they can learn the skills they need to survive and thrive, by keeping them healthy through routine medical care, and by supporting them in their pursuit of their dreams, we are not only addressing the issue of overpopulation, we are cultivating the future leaders who will raise themselves, their families, their communities and their countries out of poverty.
If you don’t believe me, listen to a couple of great quotes from the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan on the role of women and girls in development.
“Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”
“There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and women.”
— Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
If you need any further evidence of how educating women impacts the population and development of a region, take a look at Brazil, for example. A World Education Forum study in 2000 found that females in Brazil that received a secondary education had an average of 2.5 children vs. 6.5 children for illiterate women. While correlations does not necessarily mean causation, it is quite clear from this and other evidence that education has a huge role to play in determining population and ultimately development.
More needs to be done
Knowing that we have a population issue emerging, and knowing that education of girls and women is key in mitigating this issue, it makes sense that supporting programs that give girls the chance to empower themselves with an education as well as an awareness of reproductive health will have a huge return on investment in the long run.
However, according to the Foundation Center, a knowledge base of philanthropic activity, less than 2% of international giving for education from U.S. funders in 2007 specifically targeted women and girls. That is $0.02 out of every dollar spent on something that leading organization and leading humanitarians are calling out as an important area for investment. It is simply unacceptable.
However, there is hope. There are grassroots efforts out there that are trying to raise the profile of this issue. Organizations like GirlUp and The Girl Effect are giving a voice to these underprivileged women. Our organization, Rukmini Foundation, is just one example of the type of grassroots effort that we feel is needed to empower young girls through a holistic program of quality education, routine medical checkups and mentoring programs. These girls do not need a lot, but they do need our support. If we can help them overcome the financial burdens of education, they will lead themselves out of their cycle of discrimination and poverty.
In summation, we want to welcome the 7 billionth soul into this world, and we certainly don’t want to place the blame of all of our world’s issues on this new life that has entered the planet. The issues we face are issues that the world has not been able to deal with for a very long time now. However, in order for there to be an Earth that can sustain life for our children and grandchildren, we must act now to tackle issues like under-education, gender discrimination and chronic poverty in many parts of the world. The solution begins with us supporting young girls who can become the agents of positive change for our world.
References to some data on this post: