New Baby Boomers Shake Up the World: Will Women’s Rights Prevail?

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New Baby Boomers Shake Up the World: Will Women’s Rights Prevail?

John Seager

A huge generation is coming of age as a result of high fertility rates in Arab nations and elsewhere.  How will this affect women's rights?

Baby boomers. The phrase summons forth faded images of Woodstock or more recent reports of a horde of incipient retirees putting stress on a fragile Medicare system.

But there is another, more recent, set of “boomers” out there. And they’re making earth-shaking headlines today. They are young people in places like Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

A huge generation is coming of age as a result of high fertility rates in Arab nations and elsewhere. Indeed, in Egypt, 61 percent of the population is under the age of 30. In Yemen, almost half the population is under 15.

Their youthful impatience with oppression and a lack of jobs is toppling regimes that, just a month ago, seemed permanent. Their anger was fed by a sharp spike in food prices; each year the world has 80 million new mouths to feed.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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No tears need be shed over the departure of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia. And the popular uprising against Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi is long overdue. Yet it’s far from certain where all of this will end up. Popular uprisings can lead to a new era of freedom, like in the Czech Republic. Or they can give rise to new forms of oppression, like in Iran.

The largest generation of young people the world has ever seen is now on the world stage. And it’s happening at the same time that new forms of instant communication can circumvent controls long imposed by tyrants. 

In recent weeks, circumstances on the ground in many Arab states have been murky. Change has taken place at the speed of a tornado. To weather these storms and to encourage a sustainable balance of freedom and prosperity, it’s essential to take the long view. President Obama has demonstrated commendable restraint in the midst of chaos along with an unswerving commitment to keeping the United States engaged in the global effort to improve lives and end poverty.

That’s not easy. Not when the United States faces huge budget deficits and the rise of a new breed of inordinately impatient politicians.

Foreign assistance, alone among government programs, fails to enjoy majority support.

It’s an easy target in tough times – especially when misinformation rules the roost. According to a November poll, the average American believes that 27 percent of the federal budget goes for foreign aid. In fact, it’s less than one percent.

The rapidly changing world situation makes clear that, despite the seeming ease of targeting foreign assistance, this is no time for the United States to head for the sidelines.

People all over the world are demanding better futures. Family planning is critical to achieving that future. When women have the ability to freely choose whether and when to have children they, their families, their communities and their countries are healthier.

For more than 40 years, the United States has led the world in the provision of assistance for family planning. These voluntary programs have helped reduce family size and population pressures in such far-flung places and Mexico and Bangladesh.

The U.S. House recently voted to end all support to the United Nations Population Fund, the world’s largest multilateral agency dedicated to ensuring that all women have access to safe, effective contraceptives. At the same time, the House slashed all international family planning aid by some 30 percent, which could cause more millions of women to lose access to birth control and basic health services.  Under Speaker Boehner’s leadership, the House majority reimposed the Bush-era Global Gag Rule that prevents family planning funds from going to some of the world’s most effective providers. Hopefully, wiser heads in the Senate will prevail.

The actions taken by the House are misguided and counterproductive. As our representatives debate balancing the budget, it’s vital to remember that the world’s fate, including our own, requires striking the right balance.