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Conflict and Contraception

Today, Melinda Gates’ confrontation with the Vatican over contraceptives for women in poor nations is hitting the news.  Her tone and demeanor in an interview with the Guardian and in yesterday’s speech (shown by the Independent) are suitably respectful for a practicing Catholic like Gates, but her meaning is nevertheless clear:  women can and should make their own choices about contraception.  And if the Catholic Church doesn’t like what they decide, well, tough luck.

The wisdom of “voting with your feet” couldn’t be more clear than in this case.  Gates emphasizes the life-and-death risks posed to women who can’t control the timing and number of their children.  The rates of maternal mortality in the places where birth control is most needed are terrifying. She refers to a recent trip to Senegal.  Having visited that same country on the related issue of tetanus contracted during childbirth for the Pampers/UNICEF project, I share her sense that this is a question of urgent and momentous importance.

Of course, much of the commentary on Gates’ position (and the Gates Foundation’s decision to set aside £560 million to make modern contraceptives available in the developing world) focuses on the need to reduce population growth, especially in subSaharan Africa, because of the impact of the enormous crowding on infrastructure, economics, and environment.

All these are huge considerations.  But recently I have become aware for the first time, really, of another effect that limited reproductive choices have on a society:  violent conflict.

Let me explain.  In a society with high birth rates, the number of young men always outsizes older male cohorts.  Since the presence of older males has a known inhibiting effect on the violent actions of small groups of young males (think:  terrorists, gangs, as well as the platoons at war), a population where there is a chronic disproportion of this sort is doomed to cycles of hostility.  This is, apparently, a well recognized phenomenon in conflict studies.

What is less well recognized is that these very societies are the ones where women have no reproductive rights:  no access to contraceptives, no safe abortion, but also no access to midwives, no vaccines, not even the right to “say no” when a man wants to have sex.

And, in high conflict situations, there is also a known propensity to rape.  “Rape as an instrument of war” is often treated as a problem unique to places like Darfur by the world press today, but in fact, across the whole of human history, rape accompanies war as surely as death.

So you get a lot of children, which in turn, feeds more conflict in the next generation.  The whole cycle adds further dimension to what my Oxford colleague Paul Collier has called “the conflict trap.”  Because war leaves so much social dislocation, infrastructural damage, and disease behind it, conflict areas are particularly intransigent when it comes to efforts to escape poverty. Their misery spills over into neighboring countries, further destabilizing the region.

So, putting a lid on hostilities is another reason to start passing around the birth control, as quickly as we can.

I put the chart below together yesterday morning to illustrate this problem for our MSc in Major Programme Management.  (This is a degree for people who manage major efforts like building bridges, holding the Olympics, and, yes, tackling big social problems.)

These are, according to the CIA Factbook, the 25 countries with the highest birth rates in the world. Notice how many of them have also been the poster children for violent conflict in the news media over the past ten or twenty years.  Chronic cases.

The response to this and other information about the Double X Economy among the students in the Major Programme Management cohort was heartening.  They emphasized that these kinds of arguments for women’s freedoms–those that foreground the practical importance to the whole world community–are the best way to build consensus.  And they also said they believed most people, men and women, would be supportive.  It is an important turning point in gender politics, I think, that we can now talk in concrete terms about the interests of the whole global community, regardless of sex, when we address the rights of women.

It is also an important turning point to have strong, articulate, brave leaders like Melinda Gates in the forefront of this effort.


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