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World Population Day is observed on July 11 every year to raise awareness of global population issues. It was established by the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme in 1989, and the day was first marked in 1990 in more than 90 countries. China has the world's largest population (1.43 billion), followed by India (1.37 billion), according to a UN report in 2019. The report predicted that India would cross China as the world's most populous country by 2027.
What is more worrying is that a survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 135 countries revealed that family planning was one of the most adversely impacted health services globally, due to the pandemic. This raises the question as how far India has progressed towards achieving the goals set out in national policies and global commitments with regard to population and family planning, as well as how the country is handling family planning services during the COVID-19 emergency.
On the occasion of World Population Day, experts from various fields, including Dr SK Sikdar, Advisor, Maternal Health and Family Planning, MoHFW, discussed a range of population-related issues including, family planning, gender equality, maternal health and transforming social norms. They were speaking at a webinar titled 'Addressing Women's and Girls' Needs for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Family Planning Services during COVID-19 and Beyond' organized by the Population Foundation of India. Here are some key points highlighted by the panelists:
The panelists at the webinar pointed out that India's population is stabilising with Total Fertility Rate (TFR) declining to 2.2, which is very close to achieving the targeted goal. The Government of India's Population Policy, 2000 had envisaged the TFR goal of 2.1.
The experts also cited the National Family Health Survey, NFHS-5 (Phase-I, 2019-20) report that found an increase in the uptake of modern contraceptives in all 17 states that were surveyed. The survey also found a decline in unmet need for family planning in most states.
According to Dr Sikdar, the Government of India prioritised family planning as an essential health service during the COVID-19 emergency by leveraging digital technology. But he underlined the need to increase male engagement. He said, "to reach gender and health goals we must focus on men and boys and encourage an open and inclusive dialogue on sexual and reproductive health."
Making her opening remarks at the webinar, Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Founder and Executive Chairperson, Biocon Ltd, underscored that, "COVID-19 has exposed health and gender inequities and inequalities in India."
She highlighted the need for leveraging digital technologies to provide sexual and reproductive health information to young people and to build skills of healthcare workers to provide evidence-based health care. She suggested that "investing in primary healthcare can play an essential role in improving the health of women, mothers and infants for survival and sustainable future."
Archna Vyas, Deputy Director, Program Advocacy, Communications and Behavioural Insights from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also stressed the need to continue to innovate and use technology to improve health services and challenge social norms. She pointed out while there continues to be a digital divide in India, technology can be a critical tool to improve access to health services for vulnerable populations.
Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India, who was moderating the webinar, said, "To fully leverage our advantage, we must safeguard women and young people's health, rights and wellbeing."
"Coercive population policies, which impose restrictions on the number of children couples can have, fail to acknowledge that India has nearly achieved replacement level total fertility rate. This means that now is the time to protect, equip and empower our population to ensure no individual is left behind as we evolve into a nation with a dynamic, young and productive population," she concluded.
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