Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights by the Billions

Distribution of reusable sanitary pads to students at St John’s School for the Deaf in The Gambia. © UNFPA The Gambia

You are now one of 8 billion people on the planet.  

It’s been a long road with historic highs and lows for all of our sexual and reproductive health and rights. But for every billion we have grown, visionary leadership and innovation have brought us closer to where we are today.  

This is how we got to 8 billion people. 

1 billion: 1804 

Marijoe Pierre, General Coordinator of the Association of Disabled Women of the South of Haiti, spoke with UNFPA about the challenges women and girls with disabilities face due to the lack of inclusive care and medical services. Women and girls with disabilities are often the victims of physical, verbal, and sexual violence. But thanks to your support, they can receive support have surviving violence. © UNFPA/Ralph Tedy Erol

When the global population reached 1 billion in 1804, the US had one of the world’s highest birth rates. The average American woman would give birth to 8 children. At the same time, women began to agitate for themselves. They wanted a life outside of the home, the right to own property, and the right to vote. Notable leaders such as Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth led the charge for women’s rights, but also for abolitionism and temperance. Progress across all of these movements was celebrated. 

And, on the very first day of the year, a monumental event transpired. Haiti gained independence from France and became the first and only Black republic in the Western Hemisphere.  

2 billion: 1927 

Future midwives complete their training in Aghanistan. © UNFPA Afghanistan.

Women’s suffrage has been enshrined in law in the U.S. for nine years, providing a much-needed voice in politics and issues affecting women’s and girls’ lives. 

Following World War I, global leaders came together to create the League of Nations, the predecessor to today’s United Nations. It was the first worldwide intergovernmental organization and worked to maintain world peace.  

3 billion: 1960 

Mariel, 30, with her daughter Heart Eunne Faye. Mariel delivered her baby in a mobile birthing facility in the Philippines on February 14, 2022. © UNFPA Philippines

It takes only thirty-three years to add another billion people to the planet — and society is changing fast. The civil rights movement is agitating for rights for all women in the U.S., not just White women. In Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first woman to hold the highest position of power in any country worldwide, gets democratically elected to the position of Prime Minister. The invention of the birth control pill in 1950 is changing the game for reproductive rights and women’s lives. 

Second-wave feminism is marching steadily forward. Women are advocating for equal pay for equal work, an end to domestic violence, curtailment of severe limits on women in managerial jobs, and an end to sexual harassment. This is a much broader understanding of women’s rights. Advocates speak passionately about sharing the responsibilities of housework and child-rearing with their partners. 

At the international human rights conference in Tehran in 1968, the UN declared that “the ability to determine the number and spacing of one’s children is a basic right.”  

One year later, in 1969, the UNFPA was founded with Executive Director Rafael Salas of the Philippines at its head.  

4 billion: 1974 

In Bangladesh, women are benefitting from the full range of contraceptive methods, and their partners are supporting their decision to plan their pregnancies. © UNFPA Bangladesh

In 1973, just one year before the world’s population was halfway to 8 billion people, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade.

At the same time, discussions on reproductive rights escalated in many parts of the world. Building on the progress of contraceptive technologies in the 1960s, new types of contraceptives including a lose-dose version of the pill and the copper IUD became available to women. 

The UNFPA blazed forward in the advancement of its mission. In just five years, UNFPA had become operational in over 90 countries.  

5 billion: 1987  

In Sierra Leone, fistula survivors build community. © Olivia Acland, United Nations

The world hit 5 billion inhabitants at the end of the UN’s Decade for Women (1976-1985). During that time, world leaders gathered at three world conferences on women – the first in Mexico City (1975), the second in Copenhagen (1980), and the third in Nairobi (1985).  

The conferences inspire the formation of women’s organizations and networks and broadens the movement to include women from developing countries and other classes. This continued as China instituted its one-child policy in the 1980s.  

Dr. Nafis Sadik of Pakistan became the Executive Director of UNFPA, where her global leadership on population policies and programs in developing countries was truly groundbreaking — providing women and teenage girls with education and family planning resources to plan their futures. 

6 billion: 1999 

The Motherbeing team, a UNFPA partner, in their office in a suburb of Cairo. Nour, CEO and cofounder of Motherbeing said: “We’re reimagining healthcare in terms of experience, transparency and equality between patient and doctor as well as a safe and comfortable experience both online and on-ground. The healthcare we’re building has education and informed decision making at its core, because we truly believe that health education is a part of healthcare that we cannot do without.” © Myriam Boulos/Magnum Photos for UNFPA

As the 20th century comes to a close, the globe gains another one billion people.  

UNFPA leads the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, where sexual and reproductive health and rights are recognized as human rights — and women’s empowerment is understood to be necessary to develop strong families, communities, and countries. It was at Cairo that UNFPA became the organization we recognize today, centering the voices, experiences, and desires of women and not those of their government. 

Movements to end violence against women also gained ground at this time. In 1994, the US enacted the Violence Against Women Act and in 1996, the World Health Organization declared intimate partner violence and sexual violence global public health problems. 

7 billion: 2011 

Erika is a midwifery student in Mexico. The class she is in is the first of its kind at her university. © UNFPA

UNFPA continues to expand its presence and initiatives to help women and girls around the world. 

In 2001, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid of Saudi Arabia became Executive Director. She collaborated with governments and NGOs to establish programs and led as an advocate for women’s equality. Obaid introduced a focus on culture and religion in UNFPA’s development work, connecting universal human rights to the traditions and values of human worth found in all communities and religions. 

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin of Nigeria became Executive Director in 2010. During his tenure, he worked tirelessly to prevent violence against women while leading the organization in its efforts to reduce preventable maternal deaths and increase the accessibility of family planning to global populations. 

8 billion people: 2022 

Nataliia who is from Ukraine was four-months pregnant when the war started in February 2022. Due to the stress, she gave birth three months prematurely. © UNFPA Ukraine

And here we are. In late 2022, we have reached the global population milestone of 8 billion people.  

In the last decade since we’ve added another billion people, we have seen teenage girl and education advocate Malala give her first speech at the UN and the adoption of the sustainable development goals, the UN’s blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. 

We’ve seen Kamala Harris become Vice President of the United States, the highest elected office a woman has reached in the US.  

And we saw the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a decision we know will threaten the health and rights of women across the world.  

UNFPA’s work continues. 

Dr. Natalia Kanem of Panama is now UNFPA’s fifth Executive Director since the organization’s founding. Under her leadership, we have taken on the ambitious goals of ending the unmet need of family planning, ending preventable maternal death, and ending violence against women and girls, including harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation. 

Facing Global Challenges – No Matter What 

A grandmother with her granddaughters in Thailand. © UNFPA Thailand/Chalit Saphaphak

We are actively working across the globe to meet the challenges—and opportunities—of a world with 8 billion people, and counting.  

We are on the ground in more than 150 countries providing lifesaving sexual and reproductive health care. From reaching Indigenous populations with culturally-sensitive family planning resources in Costa Rica, to providing lifesaving prenatal and safe delivery care to pregnant women in Ukraine, to meeting the needs of child marriage survivors in Bangladesh, we are there. And we are there because of you.  

Thank you for standing with every woman and girl, no matter what.  

-Laurel Dowswell  

Be there for women and girls, no matter what

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