Thousands of women have descended on Rio de Janeiro, but they’re not there to do the samba. They’ve gone to Brazil to attend the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, where they intend to get family planning and reproductive rights on the global sustainability agenda.
Why? Because sustainability is all about sex. Without the latter, you can forget about the former.
“Sustainable development isn’t sustainable if it doesn’t include empowering women to plan their families, educate themselves and their children, and have a voice in government at all levels. Rio+20 (the nickname for the conference) must have human rights – and women’s rights – at its core.”
--Musimbi Kanyoro, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women
Strengthening women’s reproductive rights offers benefits that previously have not been discussed in the context of significant environmental issues like climate change. Family planning improves the quality of life for women anywhere they have access to it. Unfortunately, that “anywhere” is far from “everywhere.”
More than 200 million women in the U.S. and developing countries are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant. Yet often, these women cannot get modern contraception like birth control pills, IUDs, and diaphragms. One out of every four births worldwide is unplanned, resulting in 42 million abortions each year, many of which are performed under such unsafe conditions that 68,000 women die annually as a result.
Fulfilling the unmet need women have for safe, affordable and available family planning would protect their lives. But it would also reduce the global population growth that undermines environmental sustainability. Global population currently exceeds 7 billion and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Many scientists believe this number exceeds the earth’s ability to meet basic human demands for energy, water, and other natural resources. This burgeoning population also imposes undue pressure on the climate, air and water quality, and food availability. Studies by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and The Futures Group have shown that empowering women to time their pregnancies could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 8-15%. That’s the equivalent of stopping all deforestation today, or to increasing the world’s reliance on wind power 40 times over.
Women don’t need to wait another forty years to feel the impact of a stressed environment. A study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) reported that "women are disproportionately vulnerable to environmental changes."
* Women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during heat waves, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.
* Those parts of the world where drought is spreading are also experiencing more civil unrest. As women spend increasing amounts of time traveling greater distances in their search for water, firewood, and more fertile soil in which to raise crops, they run a greater risk of assault, rape and even death.
* Pregnant and lactating women are more vulnerable to malaria and dengue fever, both of which are extending their reach into new regions of the world as climate change forces temperatures to rise.
* Women find it harder to afford the necessities for their families as food prices increase to compensate for agricultural shortages due to drought or natural disaster. In developing countries, women may be forced to migrate if their lands become uninhabitable. Yet relocating to migration camps or crowded urban areas makes many women homeless and unable to support themselves and their children.
Including reproductive rights on the global sustainability agenda should be a no-brainer. Governments and organizations know exactly how to provide family planning services; in fact, they’re already doing so, on every inhabitated continent and in every religious, cultural and political milieu. They’re just not doing it enough, which is why women have come to Rio.
Dr. Carmen Barroso leads the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region. On a conference call with her and Ms. Kanyoro prior to their departure for the U.N. Summit, I asked her why family planning wasn’t a greater priority given the undeniable human and environmental benefits it provides.
“People in power hold strong ideologically based, extreme religious convictions that women should not be equal,” she replied unhesitatingly. “Anything that favors women’s autonomy is a threat to a world vision that rests on the assurance that the world will not change.”
Nevertheless, declared Ms. Kanyoro. “We are not going to be quiet…We no longer see ourselves as isolated, in small groups…we’re stronger because our voices are together.”
Both Dr. Barroso and Ms. Kanyoro said they and a large contingent of women advocates will be advocating three significant milestones during Rio+20’s three days of official meetings and strategy sessions. First, they will be pressuring governments to finance reproductive health for any and all who want it. Family planning is not only among the most affordable strategies for improving women’s health and well-being.
As this graphic shows, dollar for dollar, it is also one of the most effective ways to combat global warming. Investments in reproductive services generate far greater reductions in the greenhouse gases that disrupt the climate and wreak environmental havoc than the same level of investments in non-fossil fuel-based technologies, even solar energy and hybrids.
Second, women will be urging governments to adopt policies that improve health for women of all ages while reducing violence against them. In far too many countries, women still lack basic human rights. Women comprise 51 percent of the world’s population, says Ms. Kanyoro, “yet own only one percent of its assets. Women are two-thirds of the world’s workers but earn a mere 10 percent of wages. Rio+20 must not become another forum in which women’s issues are not heard. Instead, the summit must demonstrate that women’s voices are integral to all development. “
Finally, the women at Rio+20 will be demanding that governments actually provide family planning services. It will be meaningless to make financial and ideological commitments, they say, without implementing on-the-ground, government-initiated programs that ensure reproductive rights for all.
The Rio+20 Conference officially runs from June 20 to June 22. Big Green Purse will provide additional updates as the conference unfolds.
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