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World Conference on Population and Development


World population: the risks and the prejudices

They tend to be muted, but there is no shortage of criticism of the results of the World Conference on Population and Development, organised in Cairo by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) from 5 to 13 September. The Conference had the aim of drawing up a twenty-year programme (up to 2015) to combat overpopulation in the world and has been described variously as 'the faded rose of Cairo', 'a flavour of the incomplete', 'a return to morality', 'the illusion of unanimity' and 'light and shade'. It is the perpetual parabola of the half-empty or half-full bottle. The nuances of the criticisms, on the other hand, emphasise the progress made by a world forum seen by many as a talking shop and announced prematurely as a failure.

In fact, the deadlock on the question of abortion, which hung over the Conference, seemed insurmountable. And all the ingeniousness of the European Union delegation was needed to find a formula which was more or less acceptable to everyone.

The German representation, speaking on behalf of the EU at the Cairo Conference, undertook a veritable bomb disposal operation. On the decriminalisation of abortion, rejected by the religious authorities of both the Catholic Church and Islam, the text adopted made it a question of public health stating that, 'abortion can only be practised when the mother is in a state of distress' and 'in the countries where it is authorised, it may not under any circumstances be seen as a means of family planning'. The Conference was accused by religious leaders of 'sexual unbridling' or of 'promoting a hedonist, permissive culture'. On the dissociation between sex and procreation, seen as an invitation to licentiousness, and above all on the right of adolescents to contraception, the subtlety of the final proposal allowed a certain amount to be salvaged from the wreck. 'Health and the rights of procreation' imply 'that people can have a satisfactory sex life without risks'. The text nevertheless recognises: 'the right, duty and responsibility of parents to guide adolescents in matters pertaining to sex and procreation' and the 'right of adolescents to confidentiality'.

The Vatican signed the resolution, although the consensus was only partial, as it made reservations on a number of disputed points (abortion, extra-marital sex, medical contraceptives). Some of the Moslem countries, which were very critical at the outset, decided that the overall package was broadly acceptable, agreeing to the modifications proposed by the Europeans.

A second initiative which contributed to saving the Conference, after a week of searching in vain for consensus, was to leave the question of abortion pending and to proceed to discuss other chapters of the programme. Nevertheless, it was not all plain sailing. Unexpected deadlocks emerged on questions such as immigration and the reuniting of families. Here, the developed countries (Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians, countries implementing an immigration quota), supported by those whose wealth derives from oil, and Iran, which is exposed to immigration by large numbers of Afghans, Iraqis and Kurds, expressed reservations about accepting the reuniting of families as a right. This was demanded by many developing countries, especially in French-speaking Africa. The compromise reached was that 'the reuniting of families is no longer seen as a right, but fair as a principle' and governments were called upon to 'recognise the vital importance of reuniting families and to cater for it in national legislation'.

Non-govemmental organisations emphasised in vain the fact that women were the most vulnerable victims of the political and economic causes of migrations, that trafficking in prostitution and marriage by correspondence had become a plague, that the immigration regulations in most countries did not readily grant women the status of independent refugee and that the forms of oppression particular to women, such as rape, sexual mutilation and sexist laws, generally did not confer upon them the right to political asylum.

A conference on women

The objective of the Cairo Conference was to set out ways of limiting an explosion in the world population, currently estimated at 5.6 billion inhabitants. Some forecasters fear that the number will double in the next 50 years, leading to serious pressure on the Earth's resources, impoverishment of all peoples and widespread ecological damage. But the meeting soon emerged as a forum on the place of women in preparing for tomorrow's

Burying one's head in the sand

Many countries including some of the most liberal in sexual matters in regions such as the Caribbean or Latin America still outlaw abortion although the practice is widespread in their territories. The sole consequence of this is to increase the risk of backstreet abortions. The Caribbean is a striking example of burying one's head in the sand as far as this problem is concerned. In Haiti, abortion has become the most commonly-used method of family planning. One third of adolescent girls there become pregnant and half of them go on to have abortions, often up to three or four times, despite the fact that abortion is illegal, except in cases of incest. By contrast only 10% of women practise contraception. The infant mortality rate is 457 for every hundred thousand births but in the capital the figure is 1210, according to the Haitian Institute of Infant Health. And 16% of women in the city are HIV positive compared with a national average of about 7%.

In the countries of the English-speaking Caribbean, abortion is illegal or subject to very severe restrictions (danger to the mother in Trinidad and Tobago, authorisation of the husband in St Vincent), apart from in Barbados. A liberal draft law is being studied in Guyana.

Still in the Caribbean basin, there are 17 000 abortions a year in Puerto Rico, with one woman in five pregnant at any time. But the religious leaders (Catholic) urge people not to vote for candidates defending women's freedom in matters of reproduction.

The final resolution considers high-risk abortion as a crucial public health problem, as are sexually transmissible diseases, with AIDS first and foremost, and infant mortality, which are all problems deriving from a lack of education and information, especially of young girls. One pleasant surprise was that the strictest Moslem countries did not reject family planning and signed Chapter Eight, expressing a few reservations concerning 'extra-marital sexual relations' which are mentioned therein. The attitude of a group of Latin American countries was less conciliatory, while the Vatican was completely hostile, denouncing the entire chapter and expressing reservations on the chapter concerning the financing of family planning programmes, to indicate its condemnation of condoms. In any case, the rich countries did not wish to commit themselves to providing the $17 billion necessary for this programme. The final text is confined to calling for efforts to be made towards this.

Women were also at the centre of the discussion on subjects which may be presumed to be the most consensual, such as chapter 11 on access to education. The term 'equal', which appeared in the original text in respect of opportunities for girls and boys was watered down to 'fair', at the behest of certain Moslem countries who based their arguments on sacred writings rejecting such equality.

Taboo subjects

The major difficulty of the Cairo Conference is that it was dealing with a highly sensitive subject hedged about with mental reservations, age-old prejudices and taboos; cultures in other words, with all their hidden reducing effects. The authors of the proposed text nevertheless took the precaution of devoting an entire chapter to respect for cultures. Chapter Two set the new human rights (essentially, rights for women) with regard to birth control in the context of the laws of each nation and the religious, cultural and ethical values of each people. But that was not enough. It emerged from the debates on moral subjects, especially extra-marital sex, that there was an age-old reluctance to admit the free right of women to take decisions concerning their own bodies. The real debate, which never came to the surface was, in a way, about women's bodies. And the fault line did not necessarily take the expected course. Do not forget that barely 20 years ago, in most countries in Europe and North America, which had already reached high standards of living and education, women were demonstrating for the right to contraception, women and doctors were being imprisoned for abortion, and writers, artists and intellectuals went on marches to show their solidarity.

Many representatives of the Third World would have preferred the Conference to focus more on questions of development, on the basis that success in this area would lead to a decline in fertility. The reply to this was that there are means of achieving a decrease more speedily and the examples of Colombia, Zimbabwe, Thailand and China were mentioned.

These cases are worth dwelling on. The average number of children per woman in Zimbabwe fell from eight in 1960 to seven in 1981 and now stands at only 5.4. Uneducatecl women are still at the high figure of seven children, those with primary education average six while the figure for those with a higher diploma is four. 43 % of women use a modern means of contraception. Success is attributed to the participation by women in political decision-making, but above all to the promotion of education. This has more than doubled at primary level in fifteen years, with a six-fold increase in the numbers obtaining secondary or higher education over the same period. In Thailand, the number of children per woman has fallen from six at the end of the 1960s to 2.1 in 1991 and in Colombia from seven to 2.9 in 25 years. In China, coercive political measures practically forced families to have only one child. In all these cases, progress in women's education preceded the fall in the birth rate, which is in line with the analyses of the organisers of the Cairo Conference. But, with the exception of Zimbabwe, the countries mentioned had all been in a period of economic upswing for some time. And even in Zimbabwe, the national economy was far from being as feeble as that of the majority of developing countries in Africa. Thailand benefited from the boom which saw the emergence of the new 'dragons' of South-East Asia, Colombia from a flourishing parallel economy and China from a form of free enterprise hiding behind political control, protectionism and social dumping.

In addition, the question arises as to whether the top-down methods used by China and others to limit births are compatible with the aspirations of the people and the requirements of freedom of the individual, in particular with the inalienable right to one's person. There is also the possibility that such methods might provoke a backlash. The strict sterilisation programme introduced by Indira Ghandi made family planning very unpopular in India. Women received 145 rupees (just over three ECU) after having undergone the operation. The percentage of female sterilisation rose from 10.4% in 1968 in relation to that of men' to 95.7% in 1 992.

The question also arises of how easy it is to transfer the success of the countries mentioned as examples without mobilisation of international aid. One of the real questions of the Cairo Conference, as stressed in the excellent intervention by Mrs Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway, is the sharing of the world's wealth. But this was not the question of the day. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali tackled it in his opening speech, hitting out at the present injustice whereby 15% of the planet owns 75% of its resources. Some of the other interventions mentioned it superficially. Non-governmental organisations showed greater insistence, but they are often considered to be harping on. The developing countries wanted amounts to be specified for the programmes envisaged for controlling the world population. They intimated an outlay by the international community of $4.4 billion per year. However, the figures given in the final document, (4% of development aid and 20% of the aid received by the developing countries for the social sector to be devoted to population programmes), do not fix the amount of these resources. The $17 billion for the next 20 years mentioned in the preparatory document was not taken up in the list of commitments.

Is the population explosion myth or reality?

The basic assumption of the Cairo Conference is that there is a demographic threat. The Conference delegates accepted it almost unanimously. But not the media. The opinions of the demographers were set out there in defence of both points of view. The link between economic growth and limitation of the population was said to be hypothetical. It suffices to take the example of the Asian countries which did not wait to limit their births before entering into a period of spiralling economic growth. Furthermore, an encouraging finding made in Cairo was that a large number of specialists have toned down the sombre forecasts of an explosive increase in the world population. Fewer and fewer experts believe in the hypothesis of 10 to 11 billion inhabitants of the planet Earth in 2050. Nafis Sadik, Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and Conference organiser, set the objective of stabilisation at seven or eight billion. She is relying on the economic and political progress under way throughout the world. Already, the most highly populated country in the world, China (1.2 billion inhabitants) has carried out a successful 'demographic transition', just like the countries of Latin America and Asia (this covers 2.7 billion people altogether). Another group with nearly 2.5 billion inhabitants has entered into this transition. There are only the 700 million inhabitants of Africa who continue to record high fertility rates. In the developing countries, through different forms of contraception, the number of births per woman has fallen from 6.1 to 3.9 in the past twenty years. If there had not been this progress, the present world population would have been 400 million higher with an additional increase of 4.6 billion by 2010. Many experts think that once the trend in the birth rate has started to fall, there are no cases where it has risen again.

Herve Bras, a well-known French demographer, wonders whether overpopulation is a myth or reality. He comments that the teeming crowds of the Third World make an impression, whereas Africans arriving in Paris are surprised to find so many beggars and homeless people. For him, it is only possible to speak of the demographic problem in relation to world resources. The major squanderers of these resources are the countries with low birth rates. A very small percentage of the Earth's inhabitants is capable of wasting the bulk of its wealth. And this is what happens. In addition, there is no correlation between high population and poverty: some rich countries are highly populated, others not and the same is true of poor countries.

The fear of overpopulation in most cases is only that of having to share and to restrict, not even essentials, but surpluses. The other fear, according to Le Bras, is that of seeing economic growth surge in a large number of countries and therefore the emergence of new competitors. The fear of poor people was already terrifying in the days of Malthus (1798) when Britain only had 10 million inhabitants, he states ironically. To this would be added the magic fear of a new millennium. (Les limites de la plan, Mythes de la nature et de la population, Herve Bras, Flammarion, Paris, 349 pages)

For this researcher, there are still many possibilities for development in agriculture to meet the needs of the people to be born in the next quarter of a century. Beyond 25 years, projections are meaningless and have as much relevance as science fiction. And demography is not the only variable in question. Necessity is the mother of invention. Take, for example, the discovery of oil when energy was needed.

One consideration of an ethological nature is the potential result of a cocktail of machismo, birth control and scientific progress in the field of procreation. Man is now able to choose the sex of children. What happens in a country where female offspring are undervalued, when medical means allow the selection of the sex. It is simply a game of the sorcerer's apprentice. This is what seems to be happening in China. Families almost forced to have only one child choose to bring males into the world. Recent figures show a birth ratio there of 118 to 100 in favour of men. Historically the ratio in China, which always practised selection empirically (including infanticide), was about 107 to 100. Specialists in ethology (the study of animal behaviour, including man) have every reason to be concerned. Such an imbalance between the sexes in an animal society, if it does not correct itself, could lead to an increase in male aggressiveness (see inter alia the studies by Desmond Morris: 'The Naked Ape' (1967), 'The Human Zoo' (1969), and 'Intimate Behaviour' (1971), published by Jonathan Cape, London).

From 4 to 15 September 1995, another important UN Conference is to be held in Beijing, the 'world Conference on Women'.

The Cairo meeting may be considered as a pre-Beijing Conference. The debate on the role of women in controlling the world population put the experts in the shade.

Mrs Benazir Bhutto, whose contribution was among those attracting the most attention, despite her delicate position as Prime Minister of an Islamic State, put everyone in their place: 'It is not States which bring children into the world, it is mothers'. The Cairo Conference should be congratulated, if only for the recognition of this 'unrecognised continent', the woman.

Hegel Goutier