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The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics


Population Policy Revisited: Examining ICPD

By Radhika Balakrishnan


The International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, marked the first time that women's movements had been able to help define the parameters of the discourse on population. Women from the North and South had a distinct and important role in changing the focus of the conference and the resulting document away from population control to reproductive health. The focus on women is a crucial and long awaited change to the analysis of population and development. Though the Cairo document mostly reflects the crucial role that women's movements had on ICPD, a particularly important issue that needs further analysis is the connection between population and development.

The most significant contribution from the women's movements both in developed and developing countries is the placement of women at the centre of the population debate. Gender equity and gender equality were addressed in the preamble, as well as in the set of principles that set the tone for the entire document. Two separate chapters were devoted to addressing gender equality, equity, empowerment, and reproductive rights and reproductive health. This clearly marked a victory for the women's movement.

The document recognized that women's empowerment and improvement in status are important ends in themselves and essential to the achievement of sustainable development. This is in direct opposition to the prevailing notion in the population field that women are merely a means to reach a preordained target of population growth. The importance of male responsibility and the need to pay particular attention to the girl child are crucial to a long-term change in the way population and family planning policies are carried out (ICPD Plan of Action). The way population and family planning policies are carried out (ICPD Plan of Action). The target-driven population policies guided by demographers have finally been replaced by the considerations of the rights of women and men to make informed and responsible decisions about the number and frequency of childbirths.

Human sexuality and gender relations, the definition of the family, connecting HIV/AIDS to family planning issues, and the inclusion of adolescents are a shift towards a reproductive health approach. Along with the change in the field, the reproductive health approach also brings about a clearly demedicalized notion of health that examines its social, economic and psychological components. The ICPD is the first UN population conference with a particularly feminist agenda. It has reversed at least the rhetoric in the population field, giving women a central role.

The document very early in the preamble expanded the focus to recognize the connection between population, poverty, patterns of consumption and production. The need to understand population growth in a wider context was another important principle initiated at UNCED in Rio. The development agenda, however, is narrow, and does not reflect the progressive rhetoric of the rest of the document in that economic growth, though in the context of sustainable development, becomes the overriding principle.

Some have argued that the focus on reproductive health was responsible for the neglect of the more important issue of development, inequity between North and South, and the unequal and exploitative transfer of resources. The placement of reproductive health and rights in the centre has been seen, especially by some in the South, as a way to limit women to a primarily reproductive role which does not include the more important need to understand women's economic and social dimensions.

The focus on reproductive rights, the empowerment of women and reproductive health is a step toward changing the direction of the population control policies that have been carried out for the last few decades, especially on women in the South and poor women in the North. Women's unequal position in society is linked in many ways to her reproductive role and attaining control of our reproductive lives should be part of a progressive agenda either in the North or the South. The need for women to force the re-articulation of the field is of crucial importance in determining the way in which population policies will be carried out.

What concerns me is not reproductive health versus development but to understand when, how, and why population as such became an important public policy issue. We have yet to challenge the prevailing paradigm that poverty is caused by population growth and more recently, that the sustainability of the environment is primarily threatened by worldwide population growth.

Though ICPD claims to understand the connections between population, development, poverty, patterns of consumption and production, it does not explain what the connections are or should be. It assumes that population growth is inherently opposed to the economic well being of people and/or the sustainability of the earth. What is lacking in the challenge to the dominant paradigm is the questioning of assumptions which link population and development.

The ICPD document fails to address the cause of environmental degradation. The document promotes the idea that economic growth can be carried out in the context of sustainable development. However, we are actively promoting an economic system globally that cannot survive without the constant consumption of new products at the expense of sustainable development. The only people who have little concern for the large population of the South are the transnational corporations who are actively searching the world for populations where they can create a need that they can fulfil. Both in the North and increasingly in the South a very small percentage of the people are consuming most of the world's resources.

The ICPD is a step forward insofar as it has shifted the discourse on population to emphasize women and gender issues. Petchesky argues that

the Cairo document begins to approach a conceptual framework of interdependence and non-linear causation that departs significantly from Malthusian thinking...Population growth, according to the document, is only one variable in a complex array of interconnected problems, including women's low status, widespread poverty, resource depletion, 'social and economic inequality' and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption (Petchesky 1995:157).

The next step for the feminist challenge is to question further assumptions, to clarify the appropriate significance of the variable of population growth in addressing inequality and environmental degradation. We need to be attentive to a global economic system that is in its structure of production removed from the interests of its members, and can only survive with a never-ending growth of consumption, regardless of justifiable social needs. We need to be able to demand women's reproductive freedom, gender equality, equity and empowerment for their own sake, even if it means that women will then have more children.


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