32. We Need to Talk About Birth Control

My last post discussed how world hunger could be significantly decreased if women were to acquire equal rights and opportunities with men, if girls had education equal to  that of boys, and if all women who want to control their family size had ready access to effective and affordable contraception.  And while all three of these face uphill battles in various places, the subject of contraception is surely the most fraught.

There are voices suggesting that birth control is contrary to religious precepts.  I have read of claims that advocating birth control in poor countries or among minority populations is some sort of conspiracy to keep certain groups’ numbers down and thus keep them powerless.  Efforts to promote family planning often run counter to cultural traditions that promote large family sizes mainly because they arose in times when mortality (both infant and general) was so high that parents needed to have all the children they could just to give them hope that any would survive;  in addition, children traditionally helped work farms and were looked on as the only source of support in old age.

In the modern world, however, in which even basic public health measures provide much higher child survival rates than in previous centuries and in which more than half of us live in cities, cultural imperatives that date from the time when most humans were peasant small farmers are no longer so relevant.  The Judeo-Christian precept to “be fruitful and multiply” was issued when the human population was thin and death rates high — and really needs to be reconsidered as now being opposed to the equal precept to “dress and keep the garden,” i.e., to exercise stewardship, care, and preservation of our planet.  And calls to minority populations to boost their numbers make no sense to this writer, for as a Jew and a big history buff I am keenly aware that the rather significant Jewish contribution to world history never involved there being very many us.

I am also a woman, and as such I have had a typical female experience of deep concern to navigate dating and  the start of marriage so as to avoid becoming pregnant before the time was right for me, and then equal concern to achieve pregnancy and parenthood when the right time came.  I am glad to be a mother and stepmother and grandmother — not least because the number of children my two husbands and I raised were well within our means to do so.  In both preventing pregnancy in the early years of my first marriage, and being able to stop using contraception at will, good family planning was crucial to being able to have a family I could do right by and also a satisfying life.  From my own experience, therefore, I know how important fertility control is to every woman, and I believe that it is profoundly disrespectful to women to suggest for one second that they are not able to appropriately determine when and how often to bear children. Each woman knows her own situation better than anyone else, and being able to control her fertility as she chooses needs to be recognized as a most basic human right.  It’s also one of the keys to feeding the world.

For it needs to be recognized that fully enabling all women to exercise this right is critical to limiting human numbers to what this finite planet can support.  We can do much to decrease waste of food, to better use farmland for feeding people, to increase agricultural production in cities and suburbs.  But if we don’t stop the exponential growth of human numbers, none of that will be enough.  The human right to control one’s fertility, and the need for humans to limit their numbers to what Earth can sustainably support, go hand in hand.

On a completely different note, here is a recipe I learned just this month, which I really like.  This recipe will make four servings; you can divide or multiply it to suit your needs.

Black Beans With Rice

Ingredients:  2 onions;  olive oil;  2 15-oz. cans of black beans;  chopped cilantro;  2 limes; salt and black pepper to taste.  1/2 cup brown rice and 1 1/2 cups  water.

Directions:  1. Combine rice and water in a small saucepan, cover, and begin cooking it.  2. Chop the cilantro and set aside.  3. Chop and caramelize the onions in a second saucepan.  4. Add beans, and squash them a bit with a potato masher. 5.  Add juice from the limes, and salt and pepper to taste, and warm through.  6. When the rice is done, combine rice and bean mixture and serve with cilantro on the side (or mixed in — whichever you and your fellow diners prefer).  Add a salad or vegetable dish to complete the meal.

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31. Food Supply and Women’s Issues

Providing families with food has been associated with women throughout human history.  It started with our being mammals, whose babies’ survival depended on breastmilk, which only the female of the species could supply.  And it’s hard to be a hunter if you’re carrying a baby and have to stop to nurse it whenever it’s hungry (if you don’t, its cries will scare the prey away).  So men tended to be the hunters, while women and girls were the foragers for plant foods that made up most of the diets for most groups of early humans, as is also the case for hunter-gatherers today.  Women were also the ones who generally cooked whatever meat the men brought in.  So from the start, the men got more of the food-supplying glory while the women did more of the work.

Fast-forward to today, and a new book, Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, which looks at how we can fight climate change.  And this book includes a short but pithy segment on “Women and Girls” which notes (on p. 76) a few vital facts about the global food supply.  One is that “On average, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce 60 to 80 percent of crops in poorer parts of the world.”  However, Drawdown also points out that these women are often unpaid or underpaid small farmers who live in situations such that “compared with their male counterparts, women [tend to] have less access to a range of resources, from land and credit to education and technology.”  For this reason, the book cites a UN Food and Agriculture Organization determination that “if all women smallholders receive equal access to productive resources, their farm yields will rise by 20 to 30 percent, total agricultural output in low-income countries will increase by 2.5 to 4 percent, and the number of undernourished people in the world will drop by 12 to 17 percent.  One hundred million to 150 million people will no longer be hungry.”

That’s huge.  And I would add that these same low-income countries are exactly the places where this amelioration of hunger is needed most.

The same pages detail proven measures to accomplish this improvement in women’s abilities to farm:  recognize women as farmers in their own right rather than farm helpers;  improve women’s ability to own land directly rather than through men;  improve women’s access to training and microcredit;  focus research and development on crops women grow and systems that women use;  and favor approaches such as group farming that are especially useful to women farmers.

An equally important part of the feeding-the-world equation which Drawdown discusses, and which is especially  a women’s issue, is birth control, and it is significant for two reasons.  One is the obvious point that the more of us there are, the harder it is to feed us all, so enabling women to bear only as many children as they actually want will ease the demand on agricultural output.  The second is that the more children a woman farmer has, the less time and energy she has left to work her land, so that lack of access to desired contraception is another factor that diminishes women’s agricultural production.  Right now, hundreds of millions of women — and not a few men — would like to limit their family size but lack access to the contraception the want and need.  So providing the 5.3 billion dollars that the Drawdown article identifies as the sum needed to create access to desired contraception for all who want but don’t have it would be doubly useful in helping to end hunger.

One additional point that Drawdown makes is that when girls have the chance to go to school, they tend to marry later, have fewer children, use more contraception, earn more money and thus contribute better to their families’ finances, and better protect their families’ health.  So enabling all girls to become educated through high school becomes a big factor in ending hunger.  Who’d have thought it?

Drawdown is focussed on decreasing carbon emissions, and the fewer people there are the lower humanity’s overall carbon footprint.  But in the interest of enabling everyone to voluntarily control their birth rate the book makes some crucial points about some of the measures that need to be taken to solve world hunger.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley