Historical approaches to SRHR

When advancing SRHR it is important to understand the history of family planning and sexual and reproductive health policies, as one might still face prejudice and rhetoric based on these historical roots.

SRHR programmes and policies worldwide find their origins in Europe’s and US’ elites’ homegrown concerns about population control in 19th and 20th Century. There was a lot of fear for ‘exponential population growth’ which could lead to ‘overpopulation’, where ‘scarce resources’ would not be enough for the population. People’s poverty was also explained by their lack of (sexual) self-restraint and large families instead of being the outcome of economical exploitative relations between the haves and have nots. There were ideas that poverty could be tackled by keeping poor populations ‘manageable’ and reducing their size, instead of rethinking economical relations and redistribution.

Family planning and especially birth control was brought up as the solution to the situation. Both Margaret Sanger (founder of IPPF) and Marie Stopes (founder of MSI) were influenced by Malthusian ideas about overpopulation. After the Second World War the export of population control to so-called Third World started by USAID, big INGOs & foundations and UN. The Cold War influenced the situation as well as there was a fear that growing impoverished populations could support regime change towards communism and that Western economies could be affected if resources would get depleted by Southern countries’ ‘unrestricted population growth’.

Over time the discourse has changed from ‘population control’ to ‘reproductive health and rights’ making coercive population politics less visible. Most NGOs and actors advancing SRHR do have a human rights-based approach and are aiming towards a world where people are free to make their own decisions regarding number of children. But the historical discourse has not disappeared. Donor countries can be investing in family planning and SRHR with the aim of curbing migration or ‘root causes’ of climate change. Decrease in fertility can still be seen as an ideal outcome of SRHR policies. The climate crisis or migration must not become new justifications for instrumentalizing women’s and girls’ bodies and for population control narratives and measures.

Read more:

UNFPA State of World Population 2019: Unfinished Business: The Pursuit Of Rights And Choices For All