The World Population Day 2023 global theme is about unleashing the power of gender equality. What does population planning have to do with gender equality? “Women hold up half the sky” and are approximately half of the world’s population. In Cambodia, women and girls make up over 50 per cent of the population, yet they occupy only 26 per cent of leadership roles at the national and sub-national levels and10.8 per cent of management positions in the public sector. Yet, despite their importance, women are often excluded from discussions and decisions around population planning.

In a “World of 8 Billion”, the UN in Cambodia and the Ministry of Planning wish to highlight the need to advance gender equality to help realise the dreams of all 8 billion of us. This process starts by unlocking the potential of almost half of our population – to engage in decision making, education and economic development in order for the country to reach its full potential.

The Cambodia National Population Policy 2016-2030 supports a progressive approach which puts women and families at the centre of decision making. The proposed National Policy on Gender Equality is a framework for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment by addressing the root causes of gender inequality, such as poverty, violence against women and discrimination. If adopted by the government, it will contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve gender equality by 2030.

Women and girls need to be fully supported and empowered to make the best decisions for themselves and their families about when they are ready and able to have children with a focus on ensuring that their children have the best quality of life and opportunities. Communities and societies are stronger and healthier when women and girls are empowered to choose if and when to build the families they want.

What women want matters, and the UN cares. As asserted in the UNFPA Global 2023 State of World Population report, when women and girls have information and choices over their lives and bodies, they and their families thrive. By progressing gender equality, we are working to ensure that the creativity, ingenuity, resources and power of half the planet’s population are unleashed.The knock-on effect is a better world, well-equipped to deal with whatever challenges the future holds.

When women and girls are not at the centre of decision making over reproduction, the consequences can be far-reaching and devastating including: a) increased maternal mortality b) increased child mortality, c) increased poverty, d) increased gender-based violence and e) reduced education and economic opportunities.

Many countries have tried to put in place population measures that incentivie women to have more children. These policies have caused more harm as women and their families are the best placed to decide when they are ready to have children, based on their individual health, economic status and opportunities to ensure the whole family’s quality of life. Measures which seek to encourage women to have more children have resulted in a number of negative effects including:

• Increased poverty. Financial incentives to have more children can lead to increased poverty, as families may have more children than they can afford to support. This can lead to a cycle of poverty, as children from poor families are less likely to have the opportunities they need to escape poverty.

• Increased gender inequality. Financial incentives to have more children can reinforce gender inequality, as women may be seen as primarily responsible for childrearing and may be less able to participate in the workforce.

In Cambodia, the National Population Policy recognises and supports the rights of individuals and families to have the fundamental decision on the free and responsible number of children and contraception.

The government has a Special Committee to progress commitments made under the International Conference on Population and Development Plan of Action (SC ICPD PoA) that tracks the implementation of 12 global commitments which include the actions that support women’s reproductive health and rights.

Investing in gender equality today is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. When women and girls have equal opportunities, everyone benefits. We see this in the data: countries with more gender equality have stronger economies, healthier populations and more peaceful societies. We cannot achieve gender equality on our own. It takes all of us working together to create a world where women and girls can reach their full potential.

Jo Scheuer is UN Resident Coordinator in Cambodia; Sandra Bernklau is Representative of UNFPA Cambodia; Poch Bunnak is secretary of state at the Ministry of Planning.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors.