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‘Can’t Feed? Don’t Breed!’ – Why A One-Child Policy Isn’t The Cure For Poverty That You Think It Is

It’s a common occurrence in comment sections: whenever a news report casts light on poverty, you can guarantee a response in which the user suggests an easy fix for economic strife: ‘Can’t feed? Don’t breed!’ With a few taps on a keyboard and a trigger finger poised to shoot the answer out into the social sphere, it’s a wonder that such a lightning-fast response should only be apparent to the individual on that side of the screen. Why – with such power, knowledge and influence available in the world- wouldn’t somebody have come up with the answer before?

The oft-referred-to notion of a ‘one-child policy’ is frequently touted as a solve-all antidote for the world’s ills; namely, the issue of poverty. If there are already so many starving children on earth, why are parents so irresponsible as to keep spawning new ones? Once you’re, say, six…seven…eight kids in, isn’t it time to stop having children? And if a parent lacks such self-restraint, isn’t it an idea to sterilize these thoughtless individuals; to revoke their ability to choose?

Global fertality rate, rate of children born per woman on average

The internet (and, indeed, the world) is full of people who believe that too many children being born is one of society’s biggest problems. It’s not difficult to understand why: with food shortages affecting communities all over the globe, the very thought of having more and more mouths to feed fills heads with a sense of dread. But what’s more terrifying: that, or being a 13-year-old girl forced into parenthood after being sold to a man three times your age?

Rape, Child Marriage & Unwanted Pregnancies in Zimbabwe

No sooner had Maureen finished primary school, she had given birth to her first child.

A high achiever, Maureen had been born into a family in which times were hard. Her father, a farmer, had hoped that his daughter could attend secondary school in order to receive a good education, but when faced with financial difficulties, he instead chose to sell his little girl to a man more than 20 years her senior. This man – soon to be her husband – was violent and abusive, and when Maureen’s newborn passed away shortly after birth, she received beatings from him as a punishment.

Stories like Maureen’s are a common occurrence in Zimbabwe: although child marriage was outlawed in 2016, the issue is still rife and, as such, hundreds of girls are being robbed of their human rights. The abuse and exploitation of young girls often goes unchecked in rural parts of the country, with one in three thought to have been married off before the legal age of 18. Young girls (and even babies) are sold by struggling parents in exchange for cattle or as little as 100 Zimbabwean dollars (22p), and as a result they are unable to live lives of their own. They lose access to education, which results in them becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty. After raising babies of their own, those children may, too, end up being sold to predatory men – as wives, as workers, as property. Their bodies are currency.

(The above graph shows the correlation between education and birth rate – in highly educated countries, such as Canada, the birth rate per woman is lower. However, in countries where education is limited (such as Sudan or Zimbabwe), the birth rate is much higher.)

When looking at Zimbabwe’s patriarchal society, suggestions such as ‘be more responsible!’ or ‘just don’t have kids!’ fall flat. It would be wrong to suggest that every child born in the country is conceived in love: like Maureen, there are many young girls who are forced to bear children in order to appease their ‘partners’ or to earn them an extra source of income, and even those that are born into seemingly happily families are not guaranteed a safe upbringing, as economic downturn can be fiercely unpredictable. Droughts, for example – exacerbated by the global impact of climate change – may impact those working as farmers, meaning that a family which had expected to raise its child well may suddenly be unable to provide food at all. In desperation, the child may be sold or even given up in order to alleviate the parents’ financial burdens, and once this happens, the hope for a better future has all but vanished. And so the cycle continues.

Whether focusing on poverty specifically, a lack of education for the vulnerable in Zimbabwe, or even on societal issues as a whole, it cannot be disputed that the issues faced by the country’s children are in no way of their own creation. It wouldn’t be wrong to point out that Zimbabwe, like many places on earth, has suffered in the wake of poor governance. Nor would it be incorrect to suggest that historical issues, such as war and colonisation, have played their part in the way things are run today. But to look upon the faces of the needy – the children and their mothers (who are often still children themselves) – and to instantly assume that a lack of parental responsibility is the root of all their problems, is to be ignorant to a series of human rights abuses that cannot be solved by the individual alone.

‘The Chinese Method’

For all its extremity, China’s ‘one-child policy’ has been hailed by many as an effective way to keep populations under control. The policy was introduced as a temporary measure designed to alleviate social, economic and environmental issues on the mainland, and was inspired by the books ‘A Blueprint for Survival’ and ‘The Limits to Growth’ (the latter text received early criticism from scientists and economists for its inaccuracy and simplicity).

Whenever the argument in favour of a ‘one-child policy’ makes its way into public discourse, certain things tend to be overlooked – not least the fact that the policy’s nickname is a misnomer. While it is true that Chinese citizens were encouraged to have fewer children in the aftermath of Chairman Mao’s premiership (during which, would-be parents were emboldened to have as many children as possible in order to ‘empower’ the country), the official policy did not see blanket rules enforced: in some regions of the country, two children were permitted per family if the first-born were female; in other instances, a couple’s wealth or socio-economic background may have determined whether they were subject to rules at all. However, clumsy wording aside, human rights were undoubtedly abused when rules were enforced – and, not dissimilar to the issues prevalent in Zimbabwe, the injustices were largely committed towards women and girls.

The forced sterilization of Chinese women is something which is conveniently overlooked when discussing the positive elements of the policy. While women and girls in countries such as Zimbabwe are forced to carry their babies to term, Chinese women were immediately fitted with an IUD after the birth of their first, before ultimately being sterilized after their second (similarly, the IUDs fitted were modified to ensure that they could only be removed through surgery). Any woman who refused these procedures could be robbed of governmental support, subject to excessive fines, or made to raise their children in a world which revokes all access to ‘privileges’ such as healthcare and education. Even more horrifically, women as far along as 8.5 months into their pregnancy could be injected with a saline solution administered to abort their child and, in some instances, newborns could be taken away and immediately killed.

It’s ironic to think that a country which actively encouraged a ‘baby boom’ to take place, could also determine that the right to choose (or even the right to live) should be stripped away from citizens within the space of just two decades – to put it bluntly, the children brought into the world to help ‘empower the country’ would someday grow up to become the victims of yet another policy created to remedy Mao’s misguidance. These very individuals, conceived in the belief that they’d bring prosperity to China, were the ones who would have their own children snatched away or selected for termination on the basis of their gender alone (females were deemed less valuable than males, and therefore were subject to a higher abortion/abandonment rate). Further implications (such as an ageing population) take precedence when conversation turns towards the condemnation of the policy, while reproductive rights (or a lack thereof) appear intrinsic to the sustainability of the economy, and therefore continue to be overlooked.

A Global Crisis

The juxtaposition of both China and Zimbabwe’s issues highlight a significant point: that if a country were to be successful, human rights would need to be adhered to. Whilst Zimbabwe, as a nation, is rather poor, China is considered to be an economic superpower – but is finance all there is to success? Similarly, the disparity between the mega-rich and the destitute is alarming: just one percent of the population possesses a third of the country’s overall wealth, while 17% of the population live below the poverty line. Access to proper healthcare and education widely varies, too: this was made shockingly apparent in a report written about Wu Huayan, a 24-year-old student who could scarcely afford to eat since being saddled with the medical costs required to take care of her sick brother. An adult, Wu Huayan presented as a child, weighing only 47 pounds at the time of the report – months later, it was reported that she had died. Like her father and grandmother before her, she simply could not afford to afford to survive.

The circumstances surrounding Wu Huayan’s death are not uncommon, nor is Maureen’s story (covered earlier in this article) particularly rare. Both instances are harrowingly tragic, though they are not one-offs which have slipped through the net: poverty and inequality are prevalent issues all around the globe, and no amount of preaching ‘common sense’ will prevent the existence of such injustices. Indeed, a concerted effort involving world leaders is necessary if we’re to dream of a world where people can live equally: while so many of us want change, they are the ones who hold the power in their hands.

(The above chart shows the correlation between a high birth rate and the issue of poverty. The richest countries in the world – such as Luxembourg, China and the United States – are among those with the lowest birth rate. However, African nations such as Burundi, Niger and Mozambique suffer from extreme poverty, and the correlation between poverty and a higher birth rate is evident.)

A global effort semi-exists in the formation of the United Nations: 193 countries bound together with a mutual aim to better the world. Just one of its aims – ‘education for all’ – has the potential to improve the lives of so many: young girls could be kept safe at school, gaining an education instead of suffering abuse at the hands of their ‘husbands’. Young minds could develop a keener understanding of sexual health, which in turn could result in fewer pregnancies or a reduction in the spread of (sometimes fatal) diseases such as HIV or AIDS. Skills such as reading, writing and mathematics could be taught, giving young adults fairer opportunity to find work when they’re of an age to provide. Education, it seems, is one of the greatest (and most attainable) goals set out by the United Nations, and we must all play our part in bringing this aim to life.

How Can I Help?

We may not be world leaders, but every person can invoke change. Whether by making your voice heard online, supporting campaigns (both digital and in the real world), or donating what you can to charities, there are a million little ways that we as a society can help to make the world a better place. Please find a list of suggestions below, and do feel welcome to share this article with your friends, family and followers.

Sign a petition: Pages such as change.org or your country’s own government website provide the opportunity for you to put your questions and concerns under the eyes of those who are elected to make a difference. Find a cause you care about (or search for existing petitions), sign your name and let your representatives know how they can improve the world.

Spread the word: Have you signed a petition? Maybe you’ve started a fundraiser? Or perhaps you think that more people should be talking about a particular issue. Take to social media (Twitter, for example) to start a conversation about a topic which matters to you. Alternatively, you may wish to share links to articles such as this one on your Facebook page for others to learn from.

Donate to the cause: We understand that not everybody is in a position to give money to charity, and that’s fine – awareness doesn’t have to cost anything, which is why we’ve included the above options. However, if you are able to donate to a worthy cause, you can be sure that your money will be spent wisely in order to change the lives of those in need: Ruff’s Kitchens, for example, spends every penny donated on Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable youth, ensuring that they are fed a healthy meal at school and can therefore attend their education. Head to our donation page now – just £10 can help feed a child at school for a whole year.