Fathers need to participate more vigorously in the child-rearing process, the United Nations agency that monitors population trends said Wednesdayon World Population Day.

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said anecdotal evidence has shown "male involvement can make a substantial difference when it comes to preserving the health and lives of women and children."

The theme of this year's World Population Day, aptly titled Men as Partners in Maternal Health, focuses on the essential roles of men in the household in shaping their families' lives and affecting political change.

In a statement, UN Secretary GeneralBan Ki-moon said that "as partners for maternal health, men can save lives." Supportive and informed male figures not only help in the care and nurturing of children and women, but "can mean the difference between life and death in cases of complications [during pregnancy]."

According to the UNFPA's website, gender dynamics can sometimes render women powerless to make key decisions:

  • It is fathers who often decide whether a daughter will marry young or have a chance to complete an education. Early marriage can lead to high-risk pregnancies.
  • Husbands play a key role in deciding how many children a couple will have, and when. These decisions can shape the financial future of the family.
  • Men often make financial decisions, including whether to pay for a midwife or transportation to a hospital. In the event of birthing complications, such decisions can be a matter of life or death for the mother and-or child.
  • As political figures and religious leaders, males also wield influence in shaping public opinion. Their support for women's health and well-being can affect the kind of care pregnant women receive.
  • The sexual behaviour of men can also be crucial to controlling the spread of HIV, as women are increasingly at risk.

Ban said he wished to encourage men to become partners and "agents for change," adding that males ensuring safe motherhood would be "creating a world of greater health and opportunity for all."

World Population Day was first commemorated in 1989 — two years after the Day of Five Billion, when the world population reached thefive billion mark. It was instituted by the UN to spur discussion and focus world attention on pressing population issues.

The world's populationis expected tosurpass 6.6 billion this month, and by next year, more than halfofthe population is expected to be living in urban areas, according to a UN report.