Asia-Pacific: Home to more than half of the world’s population – Opinion

JIN DING / CHINA DAILY

In November this year, the world population will reach 8 billion. From the world’s most populous countries – China and India – to the world’s smallest populations in the Pacific island nations, the Asia-Pacific region is home to a diverse group of about 4.3 billion people from different areas of life, gender, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation. With more than half of humanity living in our culturally and demographically diverse region, what does the 8 billion milestone mean for Asia and the Pacific?

Globally, people are living longer and healthier lives. We have made incredible progress in health care over a lifetime, and more mothers are delivering babies safely. Poverty has diminished over the past few decades, and with the digital boom, people around the world have become more connected than ever. Yet progress is not universal. Gaps in social services and digital access still exist and lead to the poor and vulnerable groups being excessively affected. Women who are left behind most still die during childbirth, and existing inequalities and harmful social norms prevent women and girls from realizing their full potential. As we move into a world of 8 billion, we must meet the challenges, seize the opportunities and ensure a resilient future for all.

As a region, Asia-Pacific is experiencing global mega-trends, including population aging, heightened humanitarian crises, impact of climate change, urbanization, migration, and rapid advances in digital technologies. For the first time in history, we are seeing extreme demographic diversity in the average age and the fertility rates of populations. Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea, for example, are experiencing youth bulges, while Iran, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, among others, are experiencing low fertility and rapid population aging. Through the constant demographic flow, countries need to build demographic resilience – and to do that, we need to look beyond the numbers.

The solution is not more or less people. The solution is more and equal access to opportunities for all. While it is important to count people, we must remember that every person counts, and every person has rights and choices. Policies should focus on people, not populations. Instead of making the numbers work for systems, we need to make the systems work for the numbers. This is how countries can build demographic resilience.

If fertility declines, for example, is it because prospective parents are worried about how they will provide for a family, find affordable living space, or how it could hinder a mother’s career? If fertility rises, is it of choice or is it because women do not have knowledge of or access to family planning information and services? Each individual contributes leadership, skills, creativity and heart to the human family, and each individual deserves to benefit from a more just, prosperous and sustainable world. To reach that world – and the 2030 agenda – countries must uphold human rights, especially reproductive rights.

As the UN’s agency for sexual and reproductive health, UNFPA advocates a world where every woman has the right to decide whether, when and how many children to have. Sustainable development can only be achieved if women have autonomy over their bodies. It is only when women and girls across the region can make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health that we can build demographic resilience across Asia and the Pacific.

We must also strengthen cooperation between demographically diverse countries. Shared solutions are needed to address common challenges as no country is self-sufficient in our increasingly interdependent world. All countries must work together for greater equality and solidarity to ensure that our planet can support the needs and aspirations of all its people.

On World Population Day, let’s move the conversation from numbers to rights and choices. Humanity is a source of aspiration and unlimited opportunities, and as the world grows 8 billion strong, we come together to exploit the potential of the 4.3 billion people in Asia and the Pacific, and beyond. By investing together in the rights and choices of every individual, especially women and girls, we can build a resilient and healthier future for all people and the planet.

Bj√∂rn Andersson is the Regional Director of Asia and the Pacific of the United Nations Population Fund, the UN’s agency for sexual and reproductive health.

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