Two Questions for the Group

This post is part of our online salon: A New Agenda for Girls' and Women's Health and Rights, co-hosted with UN Dispatch.

I suspect many of us will agree that Adrienne's solid, common-sense paper (pdf) articulates pretty much exactly what we'd like to see the next president do. I'm curious, though, what others think about the political tactics he or she should employ (assuming, that is, that he or she is a Democrat, and thus not actively hostile to everything we're talking about).

There are two particular questions I've been mulling over quite a bit lately. First, how much should the administration pressure foreign governments to reform anti-woman laws? Here's an example: I spent quite a bit of time in Uganda last year, where feminists were quite devastated over the failure of the Domestic Relations Bill, which would have, among other radical provisions, criminalized spousal rape. Many men considered this an outrageous curtailment of their freedom. The Monitor, a Ugandan newspaper, reported that "[l]aw enforcers, legal and health experts, however … think the law prescribing the offence of marital rape is discriminatory as it seems to target men alone." A member of the Parliament's legal affairs committee said the bill should address women's denial of sex, arguing, "Refusing to have sex is the most violent thing a spouse can do."

Uganda gets a lot of aid from the US, and has shown itself willing to change its policies to make the US government happy (witness abstinence-only, for example). Should the US government be pressuring other countries to pass domestic laws protecting women, even if those laws don't have a popular base of support? I tend to think yes, even though it inevitably leads to howls about cultural imperialism. A similar questions come up with FGM, where in the past US pressure seems to have played quite an important role in getting bans passed, even in the face of cultural nationalist sentiment to the contrary.

Here's the second question. We all know that the original, crudely Malthusian justification for global family planning programs has been disgraced and discredited, in no small part through Adrienne's own pioneering work. The whole population explosion thesis came to see risible as the predicted food shortages and resource wars never manifested, at least on the scale that people like Paul Erlich predicted. Now, though, decades after the doomsayers envisioned, we are starting to see really serious effects of a rapidly growing (and developing) population — huge spikes in food prices, mushrooming megacities, disputes over diminishing agricultural land, etc. There is enormous international concern over the state of the environment. My question is this: should US policymakers, and the women's movement, try and leverage that to garner more support for reproductive health and women's empowerment programs? Is it time to break the taboo against making demographic arguments? I don't mean this as a rhetorical question — I'm asking because I really don't know and am curious to hear what others think.

Steve Sinding, former head of IPPF (among lots of other things), has argued that when the dominant paradigm of population control, with its environmental and national security rationale, gave way to women's rights, donors and the public lost interest. I've heard arguments for and against this position and am not sure who is right. I do wonder, though, whether a new administration might be better able to effect a massive increase in aid for reproductive health as part of a wide-ranging environmental initiative, because elite opinion evinces an urgency about the environment that's unfortunately unmatched by its concern over women's rights.

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  • suzanne-petroni

    Hi, Michelle.  Thanks for your contributions.  

    The population:environment connection is one that many of us have been pondering, and one which, as you note, has a bit of a disgraced -and disgraceful – past.  But we should be extremely careful before going down this path. 

    Food prices, megacity growth and land disputes are likely to be much more symptomatic of consumption and production patterns driven by the global North than of population growth. Inequality between the global North and South, as well as within countries, are what really underlie all of these problems.

    So let's think hard before we – the producers of the vast bulk of the world's pollution – blame population growth in the developing world for our environmental problems.  Not only is it disingenuous and unfair to use people in the developing world this way, but neither will it get policymakers in the U.S. – who we know are driven more by ideology than evidence – to suddenly support family planning. 

    (And with all due respect to Steve, it was the Religious Right's rhetorical conflation of abortion with family planning beginning in the 1980s that prompted the U.S. retreat from these issues, not the women's rights paradigm of Cairo.)