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Human rights and gender

The human rights situation in a country, including the status of women and girls, influences its demographic development. On the other hand, population trends such as population growth or displacement can have an impact on the human rights situation.

The human right to self-determination influences birth rates

When people are empowered to exercise their human right to self-determination, this can have an impact on a country’s average birth rate as it enables women and men to decide whether, when and with whom they would like to start a family and how many children they would like to have.

However, this right is limited if people do not have unrestricted access to modern forms of contraception. In 2017, there were still 214 million women in developing countries with an unmet need for modern contraception (Guttmacher Institute, 2017). Women in these countries tend to want fewer children than their partners, but are often unable to prevail against their partners and families.

Gender inequality affects birth and death rates

Violations of human rights such as child marriage, child trafficking and gender-based violence (including female genital mutilation and unsafe abortions) have an impact on a country’s birth rate and on maternal and child mortality. So long as girls and women are not perceived as rights holders and are not themselves able to claim their rights, birth and death rates in developing countries will not decline.

Gender inequities also manifest themselves in the greater obstacles that girls and women often face to access health, education and sex education services or to find productive work. Early motherhood is frequently associated with low levels of education, legal and economic dependence on men and poverty, which is passed on from generation to generation. The demographic dividend can only be realised if girls and women too can reach their full potential.

Each year an estimated 21 million girls aged 15 to 19 years, plus 2 million girls aged under 15, become pregnant in developing countries – and each year some 70,000 young women in this age group die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth (WHO, 2019UNFPA, 2014). 90% of all teenagers who give birth for the first time are underage girls who entered into arranged marriages (UNFPA, 2013). Marrying later not only raises women’s average age at their first delivery, it also lowers the nationwide birth rate.

Rapid population growth or displacement can endanger human rights

Rapid population growth poses the risk that vital sectors such as food supply, water and healthcare could lag behind the population increase. This could spark or exacerbate distribution conflicts and have a negative impact on political stability within a country – which could in turn affect people’s right to life and physical integrity, their right to an adequate living standard and other fundamental freedoms.

Similar impacts may be observed if there is a drastic change in a population’s spatial distribution over a short period of time, Crises, conflicts or natural disasters can trigger refugee movements, which are frequently associated with violations of human rights, particularly those of children, women, and disadvantaged minorities.

Having a birth certificate is a fundamental human right

The most important prerequisite for an individual to participate as a citizen in society is his or her birth certificate. In accordance with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, every human being has a right to identity and registration. Someone who is not registered, and therefore has no recognised legal identity, is seriously restricted from participating in society, accessing public services and asserting his or her rights.

Disaggregated socio-demographic data can also reveal inequities between population groups. Where open access to data is ensured, citizens can insist more effectively on their rights and denounce human rights violations.

For more information on the interlinkages of human rights and gender with population dynamics, please refer to Chapter 4.1 of the handbook.

How can promotion of human rights and gender equity factor in population dynamics?

To address these challenges and opportunities, stakeholders can:

  • Reinforce girls and women as rights holders and address gender inequities, to safeguard their right to self-determination and social and economic participation: 
    • Promote public awareness of these rights and opportunities, especially among girls and women. 
    • Promote legal establishment and safeguarding of these rights by the state as the duty-bearer. 
  • Support the right to identity and registration, to enable individuals’ access to basic services and participation in society: 
    • Develop civil registry systems, and particularly
    • Promote universal birth registration and the right to a birth certificate. 
  • In displacement situations, provide special support to disadvantaged groups such as children, women and ethnic minorities, to strengthen their role as rights holders towards the state and to prevent violations of human rights. 
  • Promote policy planning based on population data and its transparent public display so that inequities can be identified and reduced.


  • Data 2x, an initiative of the UN regional commissions in Africa and Asia, brings partners together to collect gender and population data and process them in a suitable format for policy making.
© GIZ/Dirk Ostermeier
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