Women and Population Policies: Why We Should Go Beyond an Exclusively Demographic Approach

One of the most famous population policies is undergoing an important change, and it is good news for women. In China, couples living in cities can henceforth have two children, instead of one, as was prescribed by the 1979 “one-child-policy”. This policy is of interest to us because it can be seen as a prime example of the way in which states repress individual freedom in the area of reproductive health, with particularly serious consequences for women and girls. This change in policy may prove to be a crucial step in ending women’s marginalisation in a process over which, by right of nature, only they should have authority.


It is worth mentioning that historically, women have rarely – if at all – been involved in the elaboration of population policies, a fact that reflects the perception of the role of women in patriarchal societies. Indeed, men have generally controlled reproduction, along with most other aspects of women’s lives. According to Abrams, this is because feminine judgment was devaluated that reproductive autonomy was withheld from them. Thus, national laws dealing with population policy have in general not incorporated women’s experiences or needs, while international law has proven insufficiently ambitious or authoritative to effectively protect women’s reproductive rights[1].

Moreover, reproductive rights remain a contentious issue. Contemporary debates on population policies have shown that experts and policymakers have taken into account the needs and exigencies of women in differing manners. While the position of the UN and national governments with regards to population policies has often mainly been motivated by trying to curb an unsustainable global population growth – an understandable and even laudable aim –, feminist ONGs have pointed to the dangers of adopting a top-down, one-sided, and demography-centred view with regards to population policies[2]. Indeed, such an approach seems to suffer from two main problems.

First, a technocratic approach to population policies is liable to subdue women’s well-being and their right to reproductive freedom to demographic concerns. For instance, feminists have criticized the methods in attaining demographic goals as often being coercive and not taking into account other important concerns. It is for instance revealing that aid agencies and governments promote IUDs over other contraceptives such as condoms, in the sense that IUDs offer less control to women in regulating their fertility[3]. Incidentally, IUDs do not protect them from STDs.

Second, and perhaps more seriously, demography-centred population policies often have important unforeseen consequences. China’s population policy provides a powerful example of this process: as the one-child policy has forced parents to limit their offspring, for reasons of mainly economic security an undeniable ‘son preference’ has emerged[4]. As a consequence, girls have in the past been victim of severe neglect, abandonment and even of infanticide, while today, sex-selective abortions in China are a common phenomenon. Amartya Sen has calculated that as a result of these practices, the number of ‘missing women’ in China alone number 50 million[5]. The sex ratio at birth in China is seriously disturbed, with several provinces reaching a level of 125-130 male births per 100 female births in 2010.

As the Chinese population is rapidly aging, the gender gap is becoming more and more pronounced, leading to a myriad of economic and social problems. Some scholars have even suggested that the surplus male population of (among others) China, the largest country in the world, could threaten domestic stability and international security[6]. The change in Chinese population policy earlier mentioned is not surprising in this light, and could be seen as an attempt to counter this ‘growth of bare branches’. More broadly speaking, one can wonder whether such a drastic policy is still needed in a country that is changing from a developing to a developed one, as birth rates are substantially lower in the latter group.

Whatever the merits of this move, one could argue that it was ultimately based once again solely on demographic calculations of the Chinese government, while the relationship between the state and women has been left unchanged. However, I believe that redefining this relationship appears as a crucial first step in changing the patterns of discrimination against women.

Why should states adopt a women rights-based approach in elaborating their population policy? First of all in order to address the two problems outlined earlier, that is, in order to improve women’s experience of parenthood and to tackle female infanticides and sex-selective abortions. Moreover, although it is an under-investigated area to this day, there is little doubt that women live very hard lives in those societies where they are a minority. But also because there is an obvious connection between women’s statuses within society and their control over childbearing: those concerned about population growth should comprehend that omnipresent discrimination against women hinders development. Maybe someday they will understand that stabilising population growth should not necessarily be done at the expense of women, and they will renounce to restricting women’s reproductive rights and well-being.

[1] Abrams, P. (1996). Reservations about women: Population policy and reproductive rights. Cornell Int’l LJ, 29, 1.

[2] Joachim, J. M. (2007). Agenda setting, the UN, and NGOs: Gender violence and reproductive rights. Georgetown University Press.

[3] World Health Organization. (1991). Creating Common Ground: Women’s Perspectives on the Selection and Introduction of Fertility Regulation Technologies. Report of a Meeting Between Women’s Health Advocates and Scientists, organized by the Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction and the International Women’s Health Coalition. Geneva, 20–22 February.

[4] Das Gupta, M., Zhenghua, J., Bohua, L., Zhenming, X., Chung, W., & Hwa-Ok, B. (2003). Why is son preference so persistent in East and South Asia? A cross-country study of China, India and the Republic of Korea. The Journal of Development Studies, 40(2), 153-187.

[5] Sen, A. (1990). More than 100 million women are missing. The New York Review of Books, 37.

[6] Hudson, V. M., & Den Boer, A. M. (2004). Bare branches: The security implications of Asia’s surplus male population (p. 275). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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