The joint regional launch of the State of World Population 2023 report, organized by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the League of Arab States, has been a unique occasion to recall critical population and fundamental issues, not least the exaggerated fears and narratives about population explosion or shrinkage. The debate on these issues has not only never stopped, but has gained unprecedented momentum since Cairo hosted the first International Conference on Population and Development in 1994.
What has changed since then and why has “8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: The case for rights and choices” been chosen as the title of our report for this year?
The answer lies in the escalation and spread of population concerns. We see, for example, that governments are resorting more and more to adopting policies aimed at increasing, decreasing or maintaining fertility rates – even though efforts to influence fertility rates are often ineffective and may negatively affect women's fundamental rights. It is imperative that, instead of asking how quickly a population is reproducing, leaders should ask whether individuals, especially women, are able to freely make their own reproductive choices.
But what does the picture look like in the Arab region?
The total fertility rate in Arab countries has fallen from 6.2 in 1990 to 3.1 children per woman in 2023. Still, the size of the population will continue to increase from 468 million in 2023 (representing 5.6 percent of the world's population of eight billion) to 676 million by 2050.
These changes – falling fertility rates and overall rising population size – have contributed to anxieties throughout the region. We heard from a woman in Syria, who told us “it is saddening that people are continuing to give birth to new babies and having big families in such times.” A man in Yemen told us his country has seen an “explosion of population – with household sizes between seven to eight members” and that population growth “will put pressure on limited natural resources.” A woman in Lebanon said, “a third of the population is from the refugee community, and the country is lacking in infrastructure and a future plan to improve.”
At first glance, these concerns about population growth might seem like demands for urgent fertility-related solutions. But we must look closer.
The woman in Syria elaborated on her concerns: “Prices are soaring higher and higher almost every day. This is making it extremely difficult for people to provide for their families.” The man in Yemen said he is very worried about the lack of birth spacing and high rates of illiteracy – concerns for the welfare of women and children. The woman in Lebanon said, “I want to be living in a country where I am not seen as a number but as an opportunity.”
These are not fundamentally worries about population size. They are concerns about equality, about conflict, about the economy and health and education. They are concerns about justice, not population.
When we get this wrong, we look for solutions in the wrong places. Health providers in the region told us their colleagues carry biases, like the belief that poor children, migrants and certain ethnicities have too many children. Some felt these ideas were held by policymakers and health institutions. Will young people face barriers to information and care because of these perceptions? Will women with large families endure worse care?
Meanwhile, we have been told for years that access to family planning will lead to the large-scale emancipation of women. This certainly can be the case. But it is not automatic, and in our region we have yet to see real equality between the sexes, parity in secondary and preparatory education, or equal access to employment opportunities. Female participation rate in the labour market has not exceeded 20 percent according to the International Labor Organization.
The message of The State of World Population 2023 report is clear: women and girls have the right to make informed decisions about their bodies when it comes to using family planning and seeking health care; Population policies must be designed as a tool to empower individuals. Women must be able to choose the issue of childbearing in quantity, quality, and timing, away from the coercion practiced by critics and officials.
Policies must have gender equality at their core, by providing paternity leave programs, child tax credits, and policies that encourage gender equality in the workplace and universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services. All of them provide a proven formula that leads to harvesting economic returns and building resilient societies that are able to thrive regardless of demographic changes. What we are asking for is evidence-based policies, justice and human rights for all.
The UNFPA Arab States regional office will continue to work with all regional partners, led by the League of Arab States, and all partners within the Arab countries, including governments, civil society institutions and research and academic institutions, to ensure focus on strengthening health systems, expanding access to sexual and reproductive health services, and promoting equality between gender, empowering women and leaving no one behind.
* The author is a UNFPA Arab states regional director