Population Matters

Mother Jones Asks “Who’s to Blame for the Population Crisis”?

April 19th, 2010

The cover story of the May-June issue of Mother Jones {“Who’s to Blame for the Population Crisis?”] asks the provocative question, “What unites the Vatican, lefties, conservatives, environmentalists, and scientists in a conspiracy of silence?”  The answer, of course, is population. 

In writing the article, Julia Whitty returns to her “genetic roots” in KolKatta (Calcutta), India, and looks first hand at the challenges posed by population density and growth. While acknowledging that global fertility rates have declined significantly in recent decades, she says:

 But it’s not enough.  And it’s still not fast enough.  Faced with a world that can support either a lot of us consuming a lot less or far fewer of us consuming more, we’re deadlocked:  individuals, governments, the media, scientists, environmentalists, economists, human rights workers, liberals, conservatives, business and religious leaders.  On the supremely divisive question of the ideal size of the human family, we’re amazingly united in a pact of silence.

Much of her article is focused on the food security challenge posed by population growth.  She says:

Voiced or not, addressed or not, the problem of overpopulation has not gone away.  The miracle of the Green Revolution, which fed billions and provided the world a sense of limitless hope, also disguised four ominous truths about Earth’s limits.  First, the revolution’s most effective agents, chemical fertilizers of nitrogen and phosphorus, are destined to run out, along with the natural resources used to produce them.  Second the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that grew the food that enabled our enormous population growth in the 20th Century bore expensive downstream costs in the form of polluted land, water and air that now threaten life.  Third, crop yields today are stubbornly stable and even beginning to fall in some places, despite increasing fertilizer use, in soils oversaturated with nitrogen.

 The Green Revolution’s duplicitous harvest–giving life with one hand, robbing life-support with the other, also mask a fourth ominous truth. We’re running out of topsoil…

In addition to family planning, Whitty sees poverty reduction and female empowerment as critical to addressing the population crisis. She says:

Whether we are a world of 8, 9.1 or 10.5 billion people in 2050 will be decided in no small part by the number of illiterate women on Earth.  Of the more than 1 in 10 people who can’t read or write today, two-thirds are female.  Locate them, and you’ll find an uncannily accurate roadmap of societal strife–of civil wars, foreign wars, the wars against equality ingrained in patriarchal and caste systems.

Citing the Philippines, she notes, however, that “The best family plans, the best intentions of any woman, can be waylaid by her government, since politics control fertility with god-like powers.”  She also faults the disruptive impact of the global “gag rule” on U.S. providers of international family planning assistance, saying that it resulted in “a whole generation of unplanned Bush babies.” 

Later this week, the world will observe the 40th Earth Day. This article should be required reading for all those who are concerned about the future of the planet and the future welfare of humanity itself.  In her conclusion, Whitty focuses on the challenge posed by resource scarcity and limits to growth, and the need to achieve a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources.  She says:

The paradox embedded in our future is that the fastest way to slow our populating growth is to reduce poverty, yet the fastest way to run out of resources is to increase wealth.  The trial ahead is to strike the delicate compromise:  between fewer people, and more people with fewer needs…all within a new economy geared toward sustainability.

 That’s an Earth Day message worth pondering.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

An Act of Bravery that Brings Hope

April 9th, 2010

Our blog recently looked at the problem of child marriage in Yemen [“Child Marriage in Yemen” March 25, 2010]. Yemen is considering a ban on child marriage that would forbid the marriage of girls under the age of 16. Currently in Yemen about half of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 18 and in some of the villages girls are married at half that age.  The proposed law, however, is meeting with fierce resistance from rural and religious leaders.

Child marriage is a violation of human rights.  It also kills.  MSNBC reported this week that a 13-year-old Yemini girl died on April 2, four days after her marriage to a 23-year-old man [“Report: Bride, 13, Dies of Bleeding” April 8, 2010].  The medical report said she suffered a tear to her genitals and severe bleeding.  Her story, unfortunately, is all too common in Yemen and other countries where child marriage practices continue.

Early marriage can have a deadly impact on girls. Their bodies are not developed enough to have a safe pregnancy or delivery.  As a result, child brides are more far more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth.  Also, child brides are often pulled out of school, and are more prone to suffer from domestic violence and abuse in their new homes.

While the problem of child marriage is still a widespread practice in many poor developing nations, international condemnation of the practice is building thanks to the story of Nujood Ali, a young Yemeni girl, who is now 12 years old and divorced.  Forced to marry at age 10, her story has become an international sensation. This past weekend, I read her autobiography, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.  It’s an amazing story.

In February 2008 Nujood, age 10, was pulled out of school and told that she was to be married to a 30 year old man from their former village. She was married not long after that and taken away from her family to live with her husband and his family. Nujood’s husband raped her on their wedding night, even after promising her father that he would not touch her until a year after her first period.

The next day she was put to work around the house and she was not allowed to leave the house or play with other children her own age. Her husband routinely beat her and her mother-in-law did not offer any sympathy; she just told Nujood’s husband, “Hit her even harder. She must listen to you – she is your wife.” After weeks of rape, beatings, crying and begging she was allowed to go visit her parents. While there Nujood gathered all her courage and ran away to the courthouse to find a judge to grant her a divorce.

Nujood luckily found a very sympathetic judge who agreed to help her and a lawyer with connections to the media and international feminist groups. Nujood’s case drew international attention, and on April 15, 2008, she became the youngest girl in Yemen to be granted a divorce.

Nujood’s story has helped other girls in Yemen. Not long after Nujood got her divorce two other young girls, ages 12 and 9, came forward and filed for divorce. Nujood was incredibly brave to run away, and informed enough to know that she had a right to seek divorce. Unfortunately there are thousands of girls just like Nujood around the world who have not been as fortunate, including the 13-year old girl who died last week.  But, hopefully, Nujood’s story will continue to inspire those in the same situation to seek help and draw global attention to the issue of child marriage.

To learn more about this courageous young woman, read her autobiography, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. It is a truly inspiring book.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager