At Rio+20, Women to Set Sustainability on Achievable Course with Sharp Focus on Reproductive Rights and Family Planning

You don’t usually hear the words “sex” and “sustainability” in the same sentence.

That will change on June 20, when the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, opens in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to the clamor of thousands of women demanding a global commitment to family planning.

They’ll be making a strong case. Studies by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and The Futures Group have shown that empowering women to have babies when they want could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 8-15%. That’s comparable to stopping all deforestation today, or to increasing the world’s reliance on wind power 40 times over.

Strengthening women’s reproductive rights would have another obvious benefit: it would improve the quality of life for women around the globe. 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 lack access to birth control pills, IUDs, diaphragms, and other means of modern contraception. Consequently, one out of every four births worldwide is unplanned, resulting in 42 million abortions each year, killing 68,000 women as a result.

Fulfilling the unmet need these women have for safe, affordable and available family planning would protect their lives while reducing the global population growth that undermines environmental sustainability. Global population currently numbers over 7 billion and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Many scientists believe this number is beyond the earth’s “carrying”capacity, given human demands for energy, water, and other natural resources along with the impact using these resources has on the climate, air and water quality, food availability, and more. Providing women with the family planning and reproductive services they want would improve both the health of women and the world on which they live.

Women are already feeling the impact of a planet stretched to the limit. 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 natural disasters like heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes.

* In areas of spreading drought, women must spend more time and travel greater distances looking for firewood and trying to raise crops, often risking assault, rape and even death.

* Pregnant and lactating women are more vulnerable to diseases like 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 make ends meet 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 moving off their land to relocation camps or crowded urban areas makes many women homeless and unable to support themselves and their children.

“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,” says Musimbi Kanyoro, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. “Rio+20 must have human rights – and women’s rights – at its core.”

So why doesn’t it? Providing family planning services is not complicated. Indeed, thousands of successful programs are operating on every inhabitated continent and in every religious, cultural and political milieu. Nevertheless, reproductive rights have not been included in the Rio+20 agenda.

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 Rio, I asked her why, if family planning offered so many human and environmental benefits, it wasn’t a greater priority.

 “People in power hold strong ideologically based, extreme religious convictions that women should not be equal,” she replied without reserve. “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, said 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.”

The two women leaders said they and a large contingent of women advocates will be pushing for three significant milestones during what’s also being called an Earth Summit. First, they will be urging participating governments to commit to finance reproductive health for any and all who want it. By and large, family planning is among the most affordable strategies for improving women’s health and well-being. And as the graphic below shows, dollar for dollar, 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, governments need to adopt policies that actually improve health for women of all ages, including in that sphere a commitment to reduce violence against women. In many countries, women still do not enjoy basic human rights. Women comprise 51 percent of the world’s population, says Ms. Kanyoro, “yet own only one percent of its assets; 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, governments must actually provide family planning services to women. It will be meaningless to make financial and ideological commitments if those are not followed up with on-the-ground, government-initiated programs that ensure reproductive rights for all.  

Even though she’s not attending the forum, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to concur.

  “It’s rather odd to talk about climate change and what we must do to stop it and prevent the ill effects without talking about population and family planning,” she has said.


This is the first in a three-part series I've been retained to write about the efforts women are making to ensure that family planning and reproductive rights are priorities in any sustainable development goals that emerge from Rio+20. Part two of the series will feature an interview with Misumbi Kanyoro and Dr. Carmen Barroso from Rio. Part three will summarize the results of Rio + 20 and next steps.



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6 Responses to At Rio+20, Women to Set Sustainability on Achievable Course with Sharp Focus on Reproductive Rights and Family Planning

  1. Tiffany June 14, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    Great article Diane and the CO2 chart is such an eye opener. Looking forward to reading the next posts in the series.

  2. Lynn June 14, 2012 at 8:06 am #

    Very important discussion Diane. Thank you for opening our eyes to links between women’s rights and sustainability.

  3. Mary Hunt June 14, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Great discussion points Diane. Check out the facts presented in the National Geographic on how Brazil brought down it’s population to a sustainable level and what the social benefits were because of it. No small task in a country that’s driven by the Catholic Church, but the women had the will and found a way…

  4. Diane MacEachern June 15, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    Thanks for the additional info, Mary. This is an important issue with an easy solution, if governments will just get behind reproductive rights!

  5. CelloMom June 20, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    Thank you for a great post on a topic that so many are reluctant to touch. It’s surprising that reproductive choice hardly features at all in the discussion, and I’m glad to hear that women are pushing it to the front at Rio.
    Zero (indeed, negative) population growth is the key ingredient to getting us out of our mess. I am no fan of China’s one-child policy, but they claim that without it, they would have had 750 million more citizens by now. Let’s make birth control (of the preventive kind) available to all now: let’s not need a global one-child policy in the future.

  6. Diane MacEachern June 21, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone. What’s amazing to me is that family planning, which is absolutely essential for sustainability and human well-being, continues to be opposed by people who seem to control the “agenda.” I really hope the women in Rio succeed in generating the attention this issue deserves. I know that, for myself, going forward, this reproductive rights are going to figure prominently on my own environmental agenda.

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