No one knows exactly when world population will reach 7 billion; data relating to birth and death is far too fluid for pin-point accuracy. Most experts agree we will reach the number this fall, so the UN has designated today as "The Day of 7 Billion" to highlight this population milestone. In many ways, this is a great achievement, but it also presents us with both challenges and opportunities, especially as huge inequities and major challenges persist.
There are many angles from which you can consider the impact of 7 billion people living on the planet: Do we have enough food to feed everyone? Will the earth's resources be depleted by expanding need? How will countries with aging populations fare as birth rates fall below replacement levels? Is quality of life expanding along with increases in population? As people live longer and healthier lives, will they choose to have fewer children? Do women and families have access to family planning so that they can decide -- freely and responsibly -- the number and spacing of their children?
The UN Population Fund's (UNFPA) 2011 State of World Population report provides an excellent point of reference for considering these complex issues. The U.S. government is a strong supporter of UNFPA, whose work is critical to achieving our global health goals. We work in partnership with UNFPA because investing in women and girls is essential to solving the world's most challenging problems.
For example, more than 600 million girls live in the developing world. It is imperative we focus development efforts on improving the lives of this next generation of women to alleviate poverty and accelerate progress on all development fronts. Women and girls are the world's engines of change: when their human rights are protected and promoted, when they are healthy and educated, and when they can participate fully in society, then progress is triggered in families, communities, and nations.
In countries around the world teenage girls are twice as likely as women over 20 to die of complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Enabling young women to avoid early pregnancy allows many to attend school longer, and as fertility falls, more women are able to join the labor force. When women have more opportunities to pursue an education, a career, and financial security, more money can then be spent on education and nutrition for their children, launching a cycle of opportunity rather than perpetuating a cycle of poverty.
Sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as well as access to safe and effective methods of family planning are at the top of President Obama's global health agenda. Human rights and fundamental freedoms must be protected, allowing women to make their own decisions -- voluntarily -- about their health, their reproductive lives, their family size, and their futures.
It is vitally important that we work together to expand awareness that universal access to reproductive health care and family planning are not only powerful means to dramatically reduce maternal and child morbidity and mortality but are central to achieving all the global development goals. We must work to strengthen existing partnerships and create new, innovative coalitions to promote increased support for reproductive health and family planning.