Nafis Sadik, a gynaecologist and the first woman to lead a major UN programme, said the 'empowerment' of women was the key to controlling population growth. 'If we had paid more attention to empowering women 30 years ago and had listened to their needs, we might well have been ahead of the game as far as population numbers are concerned,' Dr Sadik said.
'The fact is that women have been, and still are, disregarded and undervalued for everything they do apart from having children, preferably boys. Despite the advances of the past two generations, there is still a wide gender gap in both education and health care in most developing countries.'
Dr Sadik, who spoke in London on the publication of the UN's report The State of World Population 1994, said half a million women died needlessly every year as a direct result of becoming pregnant. 'Virtually all these deaths are in the developing world.'
She added: 'My personal view is that if you really looked after women's needs and women's health, everything else would take care of itself, because women take care of their families and give their highest priority to their children's health and future.
'Not allowing them to have the capacity to make decisions for themselves is really the main obstacle (to population control).' Motherhood, Dr Sadik said, should not be imposed on women as the only role in life.
The UN's report says world population has reached 5.66 billion and will be six billion by 1998. Although fertility rates - the average number of children women have in a lifetime - have fallen in recent years, the population rises by about 94 million each year.
The UN predicts there will be 8.5 billion by 2025 and 10 billion by 2050. However, if fertility rates stop declining, the global population in 50 years could reach 12.5 billion.
Educating women has been shown to decrease fertility rates dramatically, the UN report says. In Zimbabwe, for instance, women with no formal education have an average of seven children, women with some primary school education six children and women with secondary or higher education fewer than four children.
A programme to tackle global population growth will be agreed by the world's governments at next month's population conference in Cairo. Dr Sadik said current funding of dollars 6bn ( pounds 4bn) per year on family planning in developing countries needed to be increased to dollars 17bn ( pounds 11.3bn) in 2000.
She said 90 per cent of the agenda for the Cairo conference had been agreed by participating governments. Unresolved issues included sections related to abortion, opposed by the Vatican, and contraceptives for teenagers, opposed by Islamic leaders who fear it would promote promiscuity.
'The Vatican has a point of view that fertility regulation cannot include abortion,' Dr Sadik said. However, abortion was used to regulate fertility in many countries. 'It doesn't mean it is endorsed. It is just recognised as a fact,' she said.
It was also a fact that teenagers were sexually active. 'In Africa, for example, 60 per cent of births occur in girls under the age of 20.'
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