Women’s Rights & World Population: A Conversation With Suzanne Ehlers

Suzanne Ehlers is the President of Population Action International. Image Credit: PAI
Suzanne Ehlers is the President of Population Action International. Image Credit: PAI

Figuring out that to effectively curb our exploding population growth, we must invest in women’s health & rights is nothing new. But for some reason, we still have not ensured that we actually make these investments.

In fact, just last week the United Nations announced in its “World Population Prospects” report that by 2050, global population will reach 9.6 billion, increase to 9.6 billion by 2050, a 300 million people increase from the 2010 revision. So how do women’s rights factor into all of this? I spoke with Suzanne Ehlers, President of Population Action International (PAI) about that, and why Americans should be listening.

The United Nations Population Division announced that the world population is expected to increase to 9.6 billion by 2050. You state in your blog post that this presents “a big opportunity for more and more women to take charge of their lives.” What is this “opportunity”, and why should Americans care?

As humans, we should all care about the basic rights of women to make decisions about their lives. Right now, an estimated 222 million women in developing countries who want to prevent pregnancy lack access to modern contraception. Efforts to ensure that these women get access to the family planning and reproductive health services they want not only help them to realize and fulfill these rights, but also to create healthier families, and in turn, stronger communities and countries.

As Americans, investments in family planning make our foreign aid dollars go further and save more lives. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) data from seven countries shows that for every dollar invested in family planning and reproductive health, there is significant savings in education, immunization, water and sanitation, and malaria. Savings range from $2 in Ethiopia to up to $9 in Bolivia.

Besides, though the need for family planning is greatest in the developing world, nearly half of pregnancies in the U.S .are also unintended.  Surely that is something we should all care about.

Why is it that even though we established a roadmap in Cairo over fifteen years ago, today in Washington attacks on women’s reproductive health, both globally and domestically, persist as foreign aid keeps getting cut?

There are always going to be people who want to hold women back, out of fear, discrimination, deeply embedded norms that view women as less, as not equal. And that’s why strong advocacy on this issue continues to be paramount. The Cairo conference was a milestone in that it framed reproductive health as a fundamental right, but in reality, we still have work to do to live up to that promise. It’s about accountability, and about pushing the U.S. and international governments – day in and day out – to live up to the commitments they made almost 20 years ago.

Attacks on reproductive health may seem small in the face of the economic and political crises of the day, but we must remember that it is small acts that contribute to the big, sweeping changes. Something as simple as being able to go to a nearby clinic and get birth control may not seem like a big event. But multiply that by hundreds of millions of women, and it’s a start to making the world more equal, and more sustainable.

The “politics of women’s health” is a phrase you hear whenever the issue of international reproductive health comes up. Has US domestic politics around abortion spilled onto the international arena?

The harmful and willful mischaracterization and misunderstanding of abortion in the U.S. has been “exported” to other countries in several ways — one of the most damaging being the Global Gag Rule. The Gag Rule denies foreign organizations receiving U.S. family planning assistance the right to use their own non-U.S. funds to provide information, referrals or services for legal abortion or advocate for abortion law reform in their country.

That means that when the Gag Rule is in effect, organizations must choose whether to give up providing comprehensive care to their patients, or give up U.S. funding. Because of the policy, women in developing countries often experience cuts in services and shortages in contraception. The Gag Rule is a political football that has been tossed around since the Reagan administration, reinstated by each Republican President, and repealed by each Democratic one.

It needs to be permanently repealed. It’s not right to play politics with women’s lives, and not fair to let the personal biases of U.S. politicians determine whether a woman in a developing country has the tools she needs to plan her family.

Population Action International (PAI) is considered by many to be a leader in advocating for women’s health and rights around the world. What is the most powerful story that you experienced from your field visits?

I was just in Malaysia at the Women Deliver conference and, as someone working on these issues day and day out, you can think you’ve heard and seen it all. Then a video is broadcast, where two Filipino women are talking about giving birth 16 and 22 times. That’s simply outrageous! Not to mention one of them had buried four of those children, and the other said she simply forgot how to push on the 22nd. The audience gasped, as did I truth be told, but challenge yourself to get past the shock. Stop for a moment and really consider what they each have been through. It’s unconscionable in this day and age that we would subject women to such reproductive injustice, not to mention repeated circumstances of endangering her life, and certainly the lives of her many children.

I love that one of the single biggest predictors of a child surviving until age 5 is whether his mother has access to contraception. This intervention saves lives all over the place, and yet we still have trouble mustering the resources and political will to make it a given. That gets me up every day: the promise of that fight. 

Even though international reproductive health & family planning is an issue that affects all of us, many still cannot fully grasp the issue. How does investing in women’s rights tie into slowing the world’s population growth?

Each time the World Population Projections are released, people tend to get wrapped up in the numbers. At PAI, we believe what really matters is the people behind those numbers. In country after country, history has shown that if you give women the tools to take control of their lives, the numbers take care of themselves.

Women, simply by doing what they believe is best for themselves and their families, solve the so-called “population problem” on their own. Family planning and reproductive health services are not silver bullets, but they are essential parts of our health system. Empower women to keep themselves healthy, make births safer, ensure their kids will live, give them access to contraception, and women opt for smaller families.

What role does US foreign policy play in all of this?

The U.S. has long been a leader in supporting international family planning, but while the demand for contraception is increasing, U.S. support has actually decreased when adjusted for inflation. The Guttmacher Institute estimates it would take $8.1 billion to meet the global needs of women for family planning.

Of that, the U.S. “fair share” is $1 billion, or just about $3 per American, per year.  Collectively, we spend more on Superbowl snacks. Earlier this year, President Obama released his proposed budget for 2014, which included $635.4 million for international family planning, including $37 million for UNFPA. This number falls short of the $1 billion needed, and will likely be reduced further during the Congressional appropriations process. We can and should do better for women around the world.

 *This post of mine was also published in Forbes Woman.


  1. Hey there! Someone in my Myspace group shared this website
    with us so I came to give it a look. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m
    bookmarking and will be tweeting this to my followers!

    Terrific blog and great design.

  2. My spouse and I stumbled over here different web page and thought I may as well check things out.
    I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to exploring your web page yet again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s