UN Report: Fertility Education Is Key to Fighting Poverty

Karen Kersting
for National Geographic Today
December 3, 2002

With the half of the world's six billion people living in poverty—surviving on two dollars per day or less—and populations in the poorest countries set to triple by the year 2050, the United Nations Population Fund issued a report today calling for efforts to combat poor reproductive health, unwanted fertility, illiteracy and discrimination against women.

The report, UNFPA's State of World Population 2002, says the key to fighting poverty around the world is controlling high fertility rates.

"The number of children that women are having has declined from a little over six to a little below three, and that's a success story," said Stan Bernstein, Senior Research Advisor for the UNFPA and a contributor to the report. However, people are still having more children than they tell researchers they had planned to have. "Particularly in the poorest countries and poorest parts of all countries," he said.

The small decline in fertility rates still shows a lack of education and reproductive health care in developing countries, according to Bernstein.

Overall, the least developed regions of the world, such as parts of Africa, East Asia and Latin America, are projected to have a population increase from 600 million to 1.8 billion by the year 2050.

UN studies have shown that women with access to universal health care and reproductive education are more able to control their fertility rates. But this takes money, and wealthy communities remain more successful at providing these services.

"If you look at the wealthiest 20 percent as compared to the poorest 20 percent in a variety of places, the poorest are having twice as many children as the richest," Bernstein said. "In regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean it's 5.5 times higher and in the East Asia and the Pacific, it's 6.7 times higher."

Family Planning Programs Work

Since 1970, developing countries with lower fertility rates and slower population growth have seen higher productivity, more productive investment and individual incomes that have risen across the board.

According to the UN, family planning programs were responsible for almost one-third of the global decline in fertility between 1972 and 1994. In Asia these programs accounted for more than two-thirds of the decline and were also successful in Latin America and the Arab States, but they continue to be weak in Africa.

"One thing we know is that the benefit that comes with health care and reproductive health care continues to help poorer parts of populations, by continuing to reduce mortality rates and fertility rates and by providing access to information," Bernstein said.

Planning programs were able to reduce fertility by increasing the availability of health services. Universal access to these services would enable women to have only the number of children they and their partners wanted, and increase the use of contraceptives by up to one-third.

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