Is sexist social politics holding us back from having fewer children?

We had a conversation with Doreen Akiyo Yomoah, who runs Childfree African, a blog 'starting conversations for Africans who do not want to have more children-.
Photo: TLC Jonhson

The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 11.2 billion by 2100. And the world can barely support the number of people it contains now.

During 2015 to 2050, half of the world’s population growth is expected to be concentrated in nine countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America, Indonesia and Uganda.

Finite natural resources

There are numerous studies that have shown the correlation between population growth and environmental problems.

In 2015, Professor Dovers from Australian National University and Butler from the University of Canberra, Australia, conducted a research that proved that as world population has increased, the health of the environment has decreased. Population consumption and other factors played a key role in this. 

Researcher Jane O’Sullivan from The University of Queensland, Australia, made it clear in her chapter in the book “Pathways To A Sustainable Economy” that population is one of the main determinants of carbon emissions. Keywan Riahi and their team from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, pointed out that in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s socioeconomic scenarios for achieving the necessary low carbon emissions to keep the Earth’s climate from warming more than 2°C, far lower population growth than the current UN expectations of 9.7 billion by 2050 is needed.

The social pressure to have children

Though there are numerous studies showing that population growth is not good for the planet’s, and therefore our, future, there still  seems to be a social resistance to the idea of not having children.  

A United States-based study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2012 found that childfree women felt distress related to not having children when motherhood was deemed to be critical, by society, to women’s identities. Further, women who placed high importance on motherhood had the highest level of distress. The study also found that many women that were in the study faced significant social pressure to have children.

The traditional role of women in society is still steeped in the expectation that they will become mothers and will, most of all, want to become mothers, due to their ‘nurturing tendencies’. This is a gender stereotype that can put immense pressure on the decision to have children, and therefore how to live.

According to the blog, Childfree African, a blog that aims to create a safe place for conversation with those who do not wish to become parents now or in the future, in Africa, “African cultures place great importance on family, and by extension, having children. For those that don’t want, or can’t have children, the consequences of being childfree can be devastating”.

“The general societal disdain toward abstaining from parenthood, and more specifically, motherhood, is a feminist issue.”

WIB interviewed Doreen Akiyo Yomoah, Ghanaian raised between Tokyo and New York, who runs the blog and provided her perspective on the idea of having fewer or no children.

You have personally chosen to be childfree, what kind of reactions does this usually elicit from others and why do you think that is?

“I am a proud, childfree African, first and foremost for personal reasons, but my decision is reinforced by environmental and financial concerns. I also think the issue of people’s reproductive rights and the public discourse around people’s — usually women’s —  choices is one that needs to happen for everyone, not just childfree women, and policy and practice need to change.

As a childfree African woman, I’ve experienced extraordinary amounts of judgement. There are the “general” responses, like “That’s selfish” and “You’ll change your mind” and my personal favourite, “What if you meet someone who really wants kids?”

The last response is steeped in misogyny and natalism. When I hear it, my blood boils. The idea that the fact that I don’t want children, but that there could be a man somewhere in the world who does and that would obligate me to use my body in this way is just abhorrent.

Do you think societal resistance to considering having fewer or no children is a feminist issue?

The general societal disdain toward abstaining from parenthood, and more specifically, motherhood, is a feminist issue. It is wrapped up in a number of other social issues, like dignity and autonomy, gender identity, access to reproductive and sexual health services, economic independence, and gender.

“As a childfree African woman, I’ve experienced extraordinary amounts of judgement.”

There is no reason why any person with a uterus — cis women, trans* men, non-binary people — should have a child if they don’t want to.”

What kind of attitude changes could make this idea more palatable to the general public?

“For starters, a human’s individual choices should not be subjected to the demands or desires of another. In too many cultures around the world, people who seek tubal ligations or hysterectomies, or other forms of birth control, are prevented from being able to access them because doctors require the “permission” of the “husband”, such as in India, completely erasing the reality and autonomy of gay women, asexual women, or other women who are not and do not aspire to be in sexual relationships with men.

Secondly, too often in childfree circles, I see people talking about how people shouldn’t “breed” if they are poor or “stupid” or if they can’t afford children. I believe, however, that this is a red herring. The issue isn’t that people who don’t fit an arbitrary definition of who should be a parent should not be allowed to, but rather that society is severely lacking in infrastructure to accommodate everyone — infrastructure like decent jobs with paid parental leave, fairly compensated care workers, decent housing and affordable health care.

Childfree hate intersects with many other social issues — issues like racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, ableism, and transphobia. Changing these ideas and oppressive structures will require no longer seeing women as communal property, and going further to challenge all gender norms. Additionally, the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal system we live in now says that the wealthy are the most important people and the rest of us should cater to them by working for them and having children to provide them with a future workforce and consumers.

Photo courtesy of Doreen Akiyo Yomoah

The narrative about who matters and why they matter needs to change — being “successful” shouldn’t be just about making money, but about contributing your skills to the benefit of your community and providing everyone on earth with the means to achieve a decent living standard. And for many, a “decent living standard” is a life without children.”

Time to talk about controlling population growth

Scientists and policymakers are calling for controls in population growth – and we have the evidence that it would provide environmental, social and economic benefits – yet the subject remains decidedly absent from policy-making and negotiations on how to live our lives in years to come.

There are many factors that feed into this resistance but social and gender norms are a key factor. We need to break down these barriers as it’s time to start having these tough conversations.

 

Categories
EnvironmentGender
Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
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