Good reproductive health essential to reducing poverty, says UN report

Posted: 5 December 2002

Lower birth rates and slower population growth over the last three decades have contributed to faster economic progress in a number of developing countries, according to UN Population Fund's, State of World Population 2002 report.

This positive "population effect" on the economy was due in large part to investments in health, including reproductive health, and education, in addition to providing women with more opportunities.

Young mother and child in a small ruralvillage outside of Toluca, Mexico.© Cindy Reiman/UNFPAPoor countries, challenged by high fertility and gender inequality, have a unique opportunity to spur economic growth and ease poverty by following a similar approach.

The The State of World Population 2002 report shows that countries that invest in health, including reproductive health and family planning, and in education and women's development register slower population growth and faster economic growth.

Fertility declines, says the report, accounted for one fifth of the economic growth in East Asia between 1960 and 1995.

According the report, about one in five people lived in absolute poverty in 1980. Had all countries reduced net fertility by five births per thousand women of reproductive age during the 1980s, poverty incidence would have been reduced by a third.

Gender factor

The report draws a strong link between gender inequality and poverty in the poorest countries. Despite strides towards gender equality since the mid 1980s, more women still live in poverty than men, and the gap has widened over the past decade, according to The State of World Population 2002 report.

The disparity between men and women is fuelled by continued gender inequalities in different walks of life. This includes access to social and legal institutions, resources, employment and earnings, as well as social and political participation. These inequalities add to women's poverty, the report warns, and could lead to serious consequences, not only for women themselves, but also for their families and societies at large.

Reducing the gender gap in health and education can significantly reduce personal and household poverty and generate national economic growth, says the report.

Responding to the report, Steven Sinding of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) said, "recently the US administration voiced their disapproval for the internationally agreed accord that ensured the rights of women to freely choose the numbers and spacing of their children. This misguided morality should not be allowed to roll back the progress made by women during the last fifty years."

HIV menace

The report also underlines the threat of HIV/AIDS to a whole generation, describing it as a personal tragedy as well as a social disaster. The pandemic is especially dangerous for the poor, who are more vulnerable to all health risks. Poor people, especially women, lack the knowledge and the power to protect themselves. Women represent half of all HIV-positive adults in 2001.

Young people, who account for half of all new infections, have the least access of all groups to information and services for HIV/AIDS prevention. Stopping the pandemic means stopping the infection, says the report, and this highlights the need for adequate reproductive health information and services.

Poverty factor

Addressing population concerns, it states, is critical to meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals of halving global poverty and hunger by 2015, reducing maternal and child mortality, curbing HIV/AIDS, advancing gender equality, and promoting environmentally sustainable development.

The UNFPA report argues that to meet these goals in developing countries, urgent action is needed to combat poor reproductive health, unwanted fertility, illiteracy and discrimination against women. Such efforts must directly target the poor, it adds.

One the other hand, says the report, inadequate efforts to provide reproductive health services and combat gender inequality result in continued high fertility among the poor, perpetuating poverty and inequality within both households and nations.

Half the world's population, or more than 3 billion people, live on less than $2 a day, and 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day. Poverty, however, is more than a lack of income, notes the report. It is characterized by insecurity, inequality, poor health, including poor reproductive health, and illiteracy. Its effects are exacerbated by the very wide gap in most societies between the richest and the poorest.

Demographic window

Global population is projected to increase from 6.2 billion today to 9.2 billion by 2050. The least-developed countries have the highest fertility and population growth, and their populations are expected to triple in the next 50 years, from 600 million to 1.8 billion.

In view of the documented link between population policies and poverty reduction, the report calls on countries to take advantage of the unique economic opportunity represented by falling birth rates.

A "demographic window" opens when a rapid decline in fertility increases the proportion of working-age people relative to younger and older dependants; this gives developing countries that make appropriate investments a one-time chance to increase productivity and savings and lay the basis for future progress. The window closes as the population ages and older dependants start increasing.

International donors need to increase their funding of reproductive health programmes, says the report. Spending on basic reproductive health and population programmes in 2000 was $10.9 billion, $6.1 billion short of the $17 billion the international community agreed was needed to achieve universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. Contributions by donor countries were less than half the required $5.7 billion level.