Brazil a model for slowing population growth - experts

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 20 June 2012 13:39 GMT
"People always start by noting the world's population will rise from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. But that doesn't have to happen." p>RIO DE JANEIRO (AlertNet) – Rosimere Lopes knows what she does not want in life.

The 23-year-old, who lives in Cachoeirinha, a hillside slum in Rio’s gritty North Zone, was born when her mother was just 16, and grew up taking care of her five younger brothers and sisters while her mother worked.
As a result of missing so much education, she’s still trying to finish high school. But she has accomplished one important thing – she has no children of her own yet, despite having a regular boyfriend.

“My mother got pregnant at 16 so I know the consequences. I don’t want that,” she said. “I want to do better.”

In the last decade, Brazil has undergone a family planning revolution. In 2000, the country’s birthrate was 2.4 children per woman, already dramatically down from decades past. Today it has dropped to 1.9 children, below replacement level and on a par with many developed countries.

That slowdown, built on making available better information and contraceptives, and on growing urbanisation, is increasingly looked at as a model by experts around the world trying to find ways to dampen population growth and consumption - both linked to accelerating climate change and resource scarcity.

“For a long time, the environmental movement has not been thinking about population, even though people always start by noting the world’s population will rise from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050,” said Peggy Clark, executive vice president for policy at the U.S.-based Aspen Institute, which works on population and health issues.
“But that doesn’t have to happen,” she said. If population growth – an issue she called “the elephant in the room” – could be moderated, many of the other problems being tackled by negotiators at this week’s Rio+20 sustainable development summit could also be alleviated, she said.

Brazil’s birth rate has plunged in recent decades as more women have entered the workforce, and as urbanisation has made having large families increasingly difficult or less desirable.

But teen birth rates remain stubbornly high, with 16 percent of girls having been pregnant at least once by the time they are 20, said Marcio Thome, a statistics expert with BEMFAM, a Brazilian non-governmental organisation that works on family well-being and contraceptive issues.

To complicate matters, international funding for birth control programmes has been on the decline, particularly since former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration reduced support for family planning efforts and put money instead into efforts to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS.

BEMFAM, which once received $2 million a year from USAID, the U.S. international aid agency, saw that money eliminated during Bush’s term in office. But the organisation managed to turn $3 million in “phase out” funds from USAID into a business selling condoms and other family planning products, which now provides 40 percent of BEMFAM's funding, said its director Ney Costa.


In Cachoeirinha, a community of about 2,000 people living in tin-roofed shacks snaking up a hillside, BEMFAM for the last decade has run weekly discussion sessions for young people looking for information on sexuality and family planning.

The effort – which explores everything from where teens can access health services to how comfortable they are talking to their parents - has led to a reduction in teen pregnancies, said Costa, who called it “a social firewall”. Local schools also report fewer girls dropping out due to pregnancy, he said.

“A lot of girls here get pregnant early because they don’t have information,” said Yasmin da Costa, 16, a middle-school student who is training to be a family-planning peer educator. “Before I came, I didn’t know that if a condom breaks I could take emergency contraception. Now I know a lot more.”

Brazil still has less than universal access to modern contraception, with many couples particularly in poorer areas unable to use health services or afford contraceptive products, experts said.

Figuring out how to give women in Brazil – and around the world – better access to the contraception they want could pay big dividends in curbing population growth, climate change and growing demand for scarce resources, they added.

The problem is particularly acute in Africa, which is expected to see the largest rates of population growth in coming decades.

In Malawi, for instance, 45 percent of the population is under 15 years old. If family planning information and services can be made widely available to that young generation, “it would have a huge impact,” Clark said.

Altogether, more than 200 million women and girls around the world want contraception but have difficulty obtaining it, BEMFAM officials said in a statement.

Family planning and population issues have received relatively little attention in a sustainable development agreement being drafted at Rio+20 this week, experts said. One reason is that many of the government negotiators working on the document are environment officials unfamiliar with their country’s positions on family planning or related areas.

Skipping population issues in the agreement, however, would mean “we’re not giving our youth the tools they need to create a new sustainable future,” Clark said.

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