Feminism and the population problem

Posted on March 8, 2012

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An increasing number of environmentalists are raising the problem of increasing population as the new big environmental issue. While i basically agree, i prefer to make the distinction that population in itself is not the issue, so much as the way it seriously exacerbates environmental issues. These include energy supply, food supply, soil depletion, resource overconsumption, water, and more. All of these problems require doing more with less, and faced with increasing populations this may become an insurmountable obstacle. In fact increasing population makes some of the problems so much worse that it has been seriously proposed to address population explicitly, possibly even through reproductive rights – limiting how many children people have like in china.

There are many problems with addressing the population through reproductive rights. It remains a fundamentally chauvinist position. The message is just changing from the traditional ‘women are there to have kids’ to ‘women should have only the children they’re told to have’ – which still assumes women are outside of the decision making process – an other, inferior class to be ordered about.
It is also a damaging and polemic discourse. Childbearing is an emotional issue that will not lead to a consensus and one which is bound to raise problems of national sovereignty. And to top it off, it is unnecessary when a much more positive avenue exists.
It has been consistently shown that giving women access to education, healthcare, and family panning significantly reduces birth rates while also improving the lives of women and their families. Women with power and aspirations and control over when they have children can move into new roles apart from being mothers at home, and as a results birthrates drop. The issue of increasing population can be addressed through the positive route of women’s rights rather than restrictive and dictatorial measures.

And there is more. A frequent problem with development and attempts to encourage respect of human rights and democracy is the charge of cultural imperialism. People oppose ideas as a western imposition. A feminist movement has the potential to counter this resistance.
Cultural relativism can only take you so far – it’s all very well to respect other people’s traditions, but that doesn’t mean that you, or they, should see their culture as being static and immune to change, nor should it be accepted as an excuse of the continued mistreatment and abuse of one segment of the population. Many women around the world desire emancipation on its own merits and on their own terms, not because it is a western idea they wish to emulate.
The original suffragette and women’s rights movements were born of women’s own desire for change – they were not imposed or stirred up by some external agent. This is the message to communicate. Women’s rights movements around the globe can make similar demands from within their own cultural context, and no one can claim those demands are part of a project of cultural imperialism.

Rather than create polemics of dictating yet more terms to women of the world by telling them when to reproduce and when not to, it is our duty to support women’s rights movements around the globe – because they do need support! In many places they clamor for it. Just because it is not the place of western nations to impose our ideas, this doesn’t preclude nurturing such movements. Around the world women put them selves at great risk merely to bring education to girls in the face of violent religious patriarchies. This may be shocking, but should not be too surprising – do not forget that the women’s rights movement in the west suffered similar repression. Suffragettes were beaten and kill, died in jail of abuse or in hunger strikes, all for the right to vote. Still now, women are attacked and killed for nothing more than seeking their own education and an equal standing in their society. No amount of cultural relativism should allow one to condone or exude such attacks – we cannot simply say “it is their culture, let it be” because that culture is striving to change itself from within just as ours changes thanks to the feminist movement. It may not be our place to impose ideas on cultures we don’t try or want to understand. But when a culture is changing from within, when women seek full enjoyment of their human rights, then we can support them to the full extent of our abilities.

In this way birthrates will decrease – not because of some new restrictions, but because of the worldwide advance of women’s rights and the emergence of a new generation of women empowered to create solutions to our global crisis.

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