World Population Day – A Focus on Women’s Body Autonomy and Maternal Health.

Zoe Dean

World Population Day – The Impact of Population Demographics

Population demographics have a real impact on the quality of life across the world. The breadth of impact certain population demographics can have on all aspects of society cannot be underestimated. In some countries, a young population demographic is placing an increasing strain on health and education services, in other areas population decline is set to place a heavy burden on working-age people. World Population Day created by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) seeks to draw attention to these population issues. This year, this focus is directed at the gendered effects of compromised care systems as exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

General Population Trends – Women are Less Likely to have Full Body Autonomy

The incredible steps in medicine, healthcare, and education have facilitated rapid global population growth in general. The last 200 years have seen the world’s population increase 7-fold, from 1 billion to over 7 billion today. This number is projected to rise even further, to 8.5 billion by 2030, and over 10 billion by 2100 (UN, 2021). The UNFPA tracks populations growth, trends, and impacts associated with population demographic changes via its World Population Dashboard.  

The World Populations Dashboard has brought attention to stark gender inequalities, in particular around the issue of body autonomy. Body autonomy is the right to make an independent decision over what happens to your own body. Women are more likely not to have full access to body autonomy, including in decision-making linked to reproductive health. As such, 45% of women do not fully control decisions relating to sexual or reproductive health with 27% also not having access to health care information globally (Devex, 2021).  

Female bodily autonomy doesn’t only matter from a human rights standpoint, it also has a direct impact on the quality of life and life expectancy of individual women. In regions where women have low body autonomy, there is a higher risk of gendered violence, FGM, and maternal mortality. 

Body Autonomy and its Link to Maternal Mortality

When pregnant women have limited ability to make decisions over their own body, such as when, where, and how to give birth, decisions often do not prioritise their health but are guided by patriarchal or cultural norms. This can lead to restricted access to abortions, even when the pregnancy is causing risk to life. Additional factors interplaying with body autonomy are often socio-economic. For example, poorer women are likely to have limited access to health services over wealthier women, even if both have limited bodily autonomy.

As such, women in the lowest-income countries have a higher risk of maternal-related death of complications as compared to middle- and high-income countries. Whereas countries such as Italy and Belarus record 1 death per 100,000 births, this number is much higher in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria for example records 658 deaths per 100,000 births, Sierra Leone 808 per 100,000 births, and Chad 847 per 100,000 births.

Although a countries income plays a big role in a countries ability to improve maternal maternity it is only one contributing factor. Increased funding for health as well as a focus on an initiative led by and for women can build better health systems able to prioritise maternal health across all income spectrums.

Nigeria – Gender-Responsive Policies Increase Access to Healthcare Workers.

Capacity-building projects initiated by WHO in 2014 have supported the improvement of health systems regions within Nigeria. These projects have increased the capacity and quality of health care workers and have thereby improved access to healthcare services during pregnancy. The focus has been placed on empowering government departments and health training institutions to produce and distribute healthcare workers to address the acute shortage of health professionals. This has resulted in better access to quality care and policies that have been able to take gender into account.

Multiple other agencies, INGOs, and local organisations including USAID, Marie Stopes, and various national charities are working to provide more accessible maternal healthcare to women across Nigeria. Yet a long-term solution must encompass increasing women’s right to body autonomy.



WHO, (February 2021), Nigeria building stronger gender-responsive health system-invests in health workforce planners

WHO, (2019), Maternal health in Nigeria: generating information for action

Okoli,C,. (March 2021), Stopping needless maternal deaths

Cornish, L,. (April 2021), Interactive: What is the state of the world population?

UNFPA, (2020), World Population Dashboard