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Zero Population Growth: Discourses of Female Empowerment and Social Control in Tension

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The idea that population growth presents a major threat to global stability has existed ever since Thomas Malthus first theorized about the catastrophic implications of the Industrial Revolution in 1798.

The idea that population growth presents a major threat to global stability has existed ever since Thomas Malthus first theorized about the catastrophic implications of the Industrial Revolution in 1798. This oversimplified, alarmist narrative later dovetailed with Cold War anxieties about the teeming population of newly designated "third world" nations in the United States post-WWII, inspiring decades of international policy focused on restricting the fertility of women in the global South. Today, global family planning programs suggest that the distribution of contraceptives is an essential means to empowering women around the world, but a historical analysis of the coercive and eugenicist inclinations of the population and development field reveals that not much has changed outside of rhetorical fronts. By focusing only on fertility reduction as a direct route to slowing population growth and solving problems supposedly directly related to it, traditional policies fail to acknowledge the systemic inequalities that perpetuate social systems like poverty and gender inequity. Zero population growth narratives frame women in the global South as objectified reproductive bodies in need of external manipulation, and in doing so, embody a Western colonialist mentality of cultural and technological superiority. This thesis argues that while the scarcity of resources available for an exponentially growing global population is alarming, more attention should be paid to the driving forces behind the inequitable distribution of those resources than attempts to regulate the fertility of those who are most disadvantaged by the system in the first place.

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  • 2016-05