Saturday marks the 20th World Population Day, an annual event initiated by the United Nations in 1989 to promote interest in and awareness of global population issues. And this year's theme could not be more appropriate or timely: "Responding to the economic crisis: Investing in women is a smart choice."
Particularly in the poorest parts of the world, economic growth, population pressures and the status of women are inextricably linked. Empowering women raises their economic prospects and reduces the birthrate.
Likewise, lowering the birth rate lifts women out of poverty and thereby raises their status. And, if women have more financial freedom, their status goes up and the birthrate goes down. It is a circle of interconnected causes and effects that can be entered at any point.
But that spiral also works in reverse, which is part of the reason that theme was chosen in this crisis. As the United Nations Population Fund and the World Bank warned last week, family planning and reproductive health programs had been hard hit by the recent economic events.
In a news release dated June 30, Joy Phumphal, vice president for human development at the World Bank said, "The global economic downturn has taken a wrecking ball to growth and development in poor countries worldwide, and has become a development emergency for women because in-evitably they're the first to suffer when economic crises strike."
"Even before this crisis," she continued, "family planning and reproductive health had fallen off the radar of low-income countries, aid donors and development agencies - with the result that we've lost precious time in helping get women access to these vital health services, and helping countries get on a faster track to reducing poverty."
Thorays Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UNPF, reinforced that, saying, "The sad and shocking truth is that maternal mortality represents the largest health inequity in the world."
New World Bank numbers seem to back that up. Global development aid for health increased from $2.9 billion in 1995 to more than $14 billion in 2007. Aid for population and women's health, however, increased more slowly, going from $901 million to $1.9 billion in the same period. Looked at another way, from 1994 to 2008 that part of overall health aid devoted to population and reproductive health declined from 30 percent to only 12 percent.
That is reflected in real women's lives. The United Nations Population Fund says that worldwide more than 500,000 women die every year from mostly preventable problems with pregnancy and childbirth. And for each of those another 20 suffer injuries or disabilities. Africa's maternal mortality rate is 100 times that of the developed countries.
But, speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, the State Department's Margaret Pollack said that health programs are not enough to lower birth rates. Better education and economic opportunities for girls and women are needed as well.
It is that circle again. For while neglecting women's health has obvious and deadly ramifications, improving their prospects overall has just as clear and profound an effect - but in the other direction.
"We have seen time and again," said Pollack, "that investing in women is an investment in families, communities and societies. It is, in other words, an investment in our future."
And neglecting that investment puts all of us at risk.