The '7 billionth baby' was officially born today, the United Nations estimates. Key to stabilizing that rapid population growth – and creating a sustainable future – is closing the gender gap and empowering women.
Erik De Castro/AP
The world welcomed its 7 billionth inhabitant today when tiny Danica May Camacho made her appearance in a Manila, Philippines, hospital to great fanfare. India also greeted its version of the 7 billionth person on earth: a girl named Nargis, born in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
That these two symbols of a major population milestone were girls is only a coincidence, but it is also a reminder that central to global progress in stabilizing population growth has been the empowerment of women and greater gender parity. Given greater opportunities and rights, women make decisions that slow population growth, and this impact is being seen worldwide, says Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.
"The move from the 1960s, when the population was 3 billion, to the currently predicted 7 billion," notes Paul Demeny, a distinguished scholar at the New York-based Population Council, "well, that happened in, what – half a century? It will not happen again at that scale. There is every possibility [for the] global economy to cope with this [latest] addition."
It took only a dozen years to make the leap from 6 billion. And according to the same projections found in this year's State of the World Population report from the UNFPA, the population will top 9 billion by 2050 and 10 billion by the end of this century.
Of course, the United Nations' pinpointing of Oct. 31 as the day the world population tops 7 billion is an imprecise choice, as the date was based on mere projections. The 7 billionth inhabitant could have been born months ago, or could still be in the womb.
While the numbers may be staggering, the report paints a far less Malthusian picture than has been bandied about in recent years.
Total population is still climbing, but the rate of growth peaked in the 1960s at about 2 percent. It has steadily declined since then, although it remains well above replacement level in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where it still tops 2 percent.
Stabilizing fertility rates – the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime – is key to managing population growth. The starting point: more education for girls. That can start a "virtuous cycle" of delayed marriage and childbearing, which leads to fewer children and more investment in the children that are born, says Judith Bruce, a senior associate and policy analyst at the Population Council.
If a girl in the developing world spends just a few more years in school, she has more bargaining power in the home when she does marry. When girls and young women have a say, they tend to have fewer children, and those children stay in school longer, Ms. Bruce says.