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UNITED NATIONS, New York/Sarajevo, 17 October 2018--The global trend towards smaller families is a reflection of people making reproductive choices to have as few or as many children as they want, when they want. When people lack choice, it can have a long-term impact on fertility rates, often making them higher or lower than what most people desire, according to The State of World Population 2018, published today by UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency.

Family size is closely linked with reproductive rights, which, in turn, are tied to many other rights, including the right to adequate health, education, and jobs. Where people can exercise their rights, they tend to thrive. Where these rights are stifled, people often fail to achieve their full potential, impeding economic and social progress, according to the new report, entitled, “The Power of Choice: Reproductive Rights and the Demographic Transition.”

“Choice can change the world,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem writes in the report’s foreword. “It can rapidly improve the well- being of women and girls, transform families, and accelerate global development.”

When a woman has the power and means to prevent or delay a pregnancy, for example, she has more control over her health and can enter or stay in the paid labour force and realize her full economic potential.

In several countries in Eastern Europe, populations are shrinking. The world’s ten fastest shrinking populations are all in Central and Eastern Europe, including BiH. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fertility rate (1.26 children per women) is below replacement level (2.1) and it is one of the lowest in the world. Dr. Doina Bologa UNFPA Representative for BiH stated that most couples are not able to have the number of children they want due to the lack of the necessary economic and social supports, lack of reliable information on family planning as well as access to modern contraceptives to prezerve their reproductive health. Therefore, we at UNFPA advocate for increased access to sexual and reproductive health information and services  to be included in relevant policies and strategies, concluded Dr. Bologa. 

Countries with higher than average fertility rates in Europe generally don’t have policies aimed at increasing fertility, but gender-sensitive family policies that create conditions and provide support for parents to balance work and family, therefore allowing them to have the desired number of children. Increasing fertility needs to be accompanied by other measures to create an environment where people are confident to build a future for themselves and their families.  

Concerns about low fertility should be addressed through rights-based, people-centered and evidence-based approaches.  To make freedom of choice a reality, says the report, countries can prioritize universal access to quality reproductive health care, including modern contraceptives; ensure better education, including age-appropriate sexuality education; advocate for a change in men’s attitudes to be supportive of the rights and aspirations of women and girls; and make it easier for couples to have more children, if they want them, by enabling greater work-life balance through measures such as affordable child and elderly care. If people, especially young people, have access to quality education and health care, if they are in stable employment and get support for raising their children, they are less likely to emigrate and more likely to decide to have children.

Population numbers are important. But even more important than quantity are individuals’ capacities, skills and talents, their health, and their productivity. “The way forward is the full realization of reproductive rights, for every individual and couple, no matter where or how they live, or how much they earn,” says the Dr. Kanem. “This includes dismantling all the barriers— whether economic, social or institutional—that inhibit free and informed choice.”