One of the hottest topics at the “Women Deliver” conference
earlier this month—where panels ran the gamut from HIV prevention and family planning
to gender-based violence and maternal health
—was the intersection of women’s reproductive health, global population growth, and climate change.
As panelists at three of the conference’s climate-focused events noted, women in poor, rural areas are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change
. In many developing countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, women take on much of the burden of farming, gathering fuel, and supplying fresh water for their communities. As a result, they bear the brunt of hardships
when climate change alters seasonal precipitation patterns, or increases scarcity of key natural resources.
In addition, “the more assets, the less vulnerable one person is,” said Lorena Aguilar of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Worldwide, compared to men, women tend to have more limited access to resources that would enhance their capacity to adapt to climate change—including land, credit, agricultural inputs, decision-making bodies, technology, and training services.”
Women’s hardship in the face of climate change can also have a negative effect on reproductive health. Aguilar remarked that during the dry season in parts of rural India and Africa, 30 percent or more of women’s daily caloric intake is spent on fetching water alone. The enormous physical strain placed on women’s bodies because of those tasks has resulted in higher miscarriage rates among those populations, she noted.
Educating Girls to Protect the Environment
Organizations like the United Nations and the Global Gender and Climate Alliance have been working in recent years to bridge the gap between women’s rights and climate change, and reframe climate change in terms of human development. But to date, women’s struggles with climate change have not translated into meaningful economic, educational, or healthcare support at the local government level, with women’s welfare “at the very bottom of the priority list” for most developing countries, according to Nickie Imanguli with Advocates for Youth.
The unmet need for family planning tools and services is perhaps the movement’s principal challenge going forward. With an estimated 200 million women having an unmet need for family planning, unintended pregnancies could be exacerbating environmental problems such as depletion of forests, water, and other finite resources. But most panelists expressed optimism that the growing recognition of a connection between climate change and women’s reproductive health might lead to a boost in funding for family planning initiatives in underserved areas of the world.
Speakers at Women Deliver emphasized that reproductive health can be bolstered by improving educational opportunities for girls in poor rural areas. Joy Nayiga with Uganda’s Ministry of Finance Planning Economic Development noted that “girls are more likely than boys to drop out of school to help their mothers gather fuel, wood, and water.” This trend, she said, robs females of an opportunity for educational advancement, and heightens the likelihood they will end up starting families of their own while very young.
Nayiga and other panelists asserted that empowering females through education leads them to take greater control over their own sexual health, making it easier for them to start their families later in life, or perhaps have a smaller number of children.
Encouraging women to take a more active role in family planning in this regard serves as “a win-win situation for women, their communities, and the nations of the world,” by “bending down the overall trajectory of population growth,” asserted the Worldwatch Institute’s Robert Engelman.
Some speakers also argued that enabling women to delay motherhood if they want could yield direct environmental benefits for nations of the Global South that are struggling to adapt to climate change. Since women are often responsible for overseeing agriculture and forest resource management practices in their communities, they help create localized carbon sinks across the developing world.
“Women pull carbon out of the atmosphere and bury it, in farm soils, in trees that they grow,” noted the Worldwatch Institute’s Engelman, who even suggested women’s aggregate impact removing carbon could be more effective than cap-and-trade plans.
Moving Slowly From Talk to Action
Given both their vulnerability to the effects of climate change—and their potential to help offset those same impacts—“women are critical stakeholders in climate change moving forward,” said Population Action International’s Kathleen Mogelgaard. So far, however, while there may be growing discussion about giving women a more prominent seat at the table when developing climate change adaptation and mitigation plans, that has not yet happened.
“We’re not seeing big government investment in empowering women on the issue of climate change,” remarked Leo Bryant, with Marie Stopes International, a U.K.-based NGO specializing in sexual and reproductive health. Instead, Bryant said, it has been NGOs that have been doing much of the heavy lifting of bringing women into the conversation.
But many panelists felt that, in time, governments will recognize it is in their enlightened self-interest to link issues of gender rights and climate change. “By upholding women’s rights,” concluded the IUCN’s Lorena Aguilar, “we are in fact making one of the most crucial preparations associated to climate change that any society can make.”
Click here for additional New Security Beat coverage of reproductive health talks at the Women Deliver conference, or here for more coverage of the interplay between traditional gender roles and family planning.
Sources: International Institute for Sustainable Development, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Marie Stopes International, Population Action International, Population Reference Bureau, The Times (U.K.), United Nations Development Programme, Women Deliver, Worldwatch Institute.
Photo Credit: “Climate Change Canvas” courtesy of Amnesty International.