Helen Epstein, author of “The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS,” is sensible and effective—give women a voice and perhaps solve one of the world’s largest problems: overpopulation.
The United Nations is planning to announce this Monday that the world population has reached seven billion. We are living in an age of huge population growth, and there is question as to whether the earth and her depleting resources can support the extra billion(s). BBC News suggests that space is not the issue—if the entire world population lived in one mega-city, we could all actually fit in France. Alas, we do not all live in one place and the places we live vary greatly in terms of access to resources. Sadly, overpopulation, like most social issues, is mostly a problem for the poor. In southern Africa, children and adults, stunted from chronic hunger and poor nutrition, may have to share what little they have with an ever-increasing population. While the average number of children per woman has dropped over the last decade globally, the number of children that a Niger woman will bear remained an astounding seven in 2010.
This trend may be due to the fact that controls on population that have worked in other countries—namely, contraception and a push for abstinence (some would argue)—do not work in Africa because of deep-rooted, culturally sanctioned sexism. As I write this, I am careful to note the potential ethnocentricity of my words and judgments. As a Western-born woman in my 20’s, I am undoubtedly shaped by Western values of independence. But when I acknowledge my place as a woman of the world, bearing the evolutionary collective consciousness that is passed down over the generations regarding sex and childbirth, I cannot help but cringe that “choice” for Ghanaian women is between sex/babies and a beating. “If the man’s penis is up,” explained one, “unless it enters into the vagina, it won’t lie down. So allow him to have his sex and only then can you be free. Is it not better to have the sex than to have the beating?” This is not “choice,” it is not culture, and it does not deserve my deference.
Family planning and contraceptives have been rejected in Ghana by both men and women for years—something that has perplexed researchers. In describing Western scientists gone abroad, "Dr. Epstein borrows pseudonyms from the children’s Babar books. There they are — Celeste, Arthur and Cornelius — pleasant, ineffectual, two-dimensional cutouts pasted into a complex and dangerous landscape they will never quite fathom. It is a sadly inspired touch." So what makes researchers like Dr. Epstein, and Dr. James Phillips, Columbia University demographer, so different? Perhaps it is that instead of focusing their efforts on changing male minds, they focus on elevating and empowering women’s minds. Dr. Phillips noticed that fertility rates of born-again Ghanaian women were plummeting, he asked, “Why?” First, he noted that only Ghanaian men are allowed to speak with the ancestors and spirits. Thus, by introducing Ghanaian women to Jesus, missionaries were inadvertently empowering women to engage in a powerful cultural act previously closed off to women. Second, women involved in the church were given decision-making power. And even though the church did not promote family planning, the side-effect of this liberation was considered by Dr. Epstein to be “the invisible cure.” It is not a drug; it is not better contraception, or even education. It is simply empowerment. The message is sensible and effective: empower women and the world will be just fine.