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Demographic discrepancies cause worry

By Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-07-11 09:22

This divergent trend may threaten the regions' economic gains, analysts say

As the international community observes this year's World Population Day on Thursday, policymakers across continents, especially in Asia, have to tackle a demographic paradox.

The United Nations estimates the global population may hit 9.7 billion in 2050 from about 7.7 billion today. However, a wide discrepancy among subregions is apparent across the world.

Southern Asia and Africa are struggling with providing jobs for the growing number of young people as a result of higher fertility rate, but East Asia, Europe and elsewhere are confronted with rapid aging that can pressure their resources and public services.

The ramifications of this divergent demographic trend may threaten the regions' economic gains and the UN's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, analysts noted. The 17 goals include eradication of extreme poverty, halting deforestation and promotion of gender equality.

Sivananthi Thanenthiran, executive director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women, said meeting these SDGs is crucial for Asian countries with a huge youth population. Such "sizable youth power" needs quality education, skills and job opportunities.

The United Nations Population Fund said the total fertility rate for Asia is close to the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. In East Asia, fertility rate is 1.7 births, while in South Asia, the rate is 2.5 births.

According to the UNFPA, the Asia-Pacific region has nearly 1 billion young people aged 10 to 24 years. More than half of these young Asians live in India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In most "young" countries, youth unemployment is a problem and faster development can ease the pain.

In contrast, East Asians face a different problem: falling birth rates and a growing number of elderly people.

According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, over 12 percent of the Asian population is 60 years or older. This is projected to rise to more than 20 percent by 2050. In East Asia, over 30 percent of the population is expected to be 60 years or older by 2050.

Peter Mcdonald, professor at the School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne in Australia, said having fewer children has served East Asian countries well. Parents with one to two children were able to invest in quality education and produce a more skilled workforce.

Apart from lower birth rates, UNESCAP said the improved living standards and access to health care and nutrition also boosted the number of the elderly.

But the pace of aging in Asia is faster and happening at a much earlier stage of development compared with the more industrialized economies.

It took France 115 years and the United States 69 years to move from an aging to an aged society, according to UNESCAP. In contrast, Japan took only 24 years to become an aged society.

China is expected to make the transition in 25 years and Singapore in 22 years.

East Asian policymakers did not anticipate birthrates would fall at such low rates, Mcdonald said, noting that they enjoyed a "nice big dividend in the short-term (but will have a) big problem in future".

Bussarawan Teerawichitchainan, deputy director of the Center for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore, said policymakers in the region need to take note of how to ensure the health and financial security of the elderly.

"How will people support themselves during old age, especially if they don't work. They also need long-term care because as people live longer, those added years may not be healthy years," she said.

Moreover, developing Asia has to tackle another burden of their young women besides joblessness: the lack of family planning policies and cultural bias against women's reproductive health.

"Never-married women, including adolescents and young women, have a great disadvantage in obtaining contraceptives largely due to the stigma attached to being sexually active before marriage," Thanenthiran said.

She cited this year's World Population Day theme which focuses on the progress made after the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt. Participants of the 1994 conference recognized that reproductive health and gender equality are essential for achieving sustainable development.

Thanenthiran said most women in South and Southeast Asia still struggle with unwanted pregnancies and forced marriages. She said that 63 percent of the adolescent pregnancies in Asia are unplanned.

"People need to recognize that women have to understand and have control over their reproductive health," said Junice Melgar, executive director of the Manila-based Likhaan Center for Women's Health.

Melgar said that sex education and access to contraceptives are important in order to reduce high adolescent fertility rate that usually push women to drop out of school and remain jobless and poor.

Karl Wilson contributed to the story.

prime@chinadailyapac.com

(China Daily Global 07/11/2019 page3)

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