Ammi, my mother-in-law, was 16 years old when her marriage was arranged. Before she was 18, she had borne her first child, who died within the year, and by 30, she had given birth to six more. She had a fourth-grade education, and like other women in the new state of Pakistan, she knew little about contraceptive choices.
More than 50 years later, contraception still remains inaccessible for millions of women in Pakistan, such as Rani, the young woman who cleans Ammi’s Karachi home. Illiterate and married off to a cousin at age 15, Rani already has three children, and, like the majority of married Pakistani women
who have never used modern contraception, will most likely have at least one more.
Giving women the ability to determine whether and when to become pregnant is fundamental to the realization of their basic human rights. It is also a proven health and development strategy, substantially reducing maternal and infant mortality by allowing women to space their pregnancies. And now, for the first time, two studies offer compelling evidence that it has another benefit: What is good for women is also good for our planet.
These groundbreaking studies have rigorously quantified the effect on the environment of helping women and girls control their reproductive destinies. The studies – “The World Population Prospects and Unmet Need for Family Planning,” by the Futures Group, and, “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions,” by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis – demonstrate that giving women and girls access to contraception offers a precious co-benefit: a substantial reduction in carbon emissions.
The logic is simple: When women have the power to plan their families, populations grow more slowly, as do greenhouse gas emissions. The cost of providing these needed family planning services worldwide is minimal compared with other development and emissions reductions strategies – roughly $3.7 billion per year.
More than 200 million women in the United States and developing countries are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant, yet are not using modern contraception. The results are staggering: One in four births worldwide is unplanned, leading to 42 million abortions each year (half of them clandestine) and 68,000 women’s deaths.
Moreover, the large number of women who become pregnant when they do not want to is a significant source of population growth. Read in tandem, the studies show that a reduction of 8-15 percent of essential carbon emissions can be obtained simply by providing modern contraception to all women who want it. This reduction would be equivalent to stopping all deforestation or increasing the world’s use of wind power 40-fold. Although this is just one piece of the emissions reduction puzzle, it is a substantial piece.
The world is now facing multi-layered challenges of economic distress, rising inequality, and environmental devastation caused by climate change. International climate negotiations have repeatedly stalled as powerful nations play the blame game and block progress. Meanwhile, a series of severe weather events has buffeted the earth from Moscow to Iowa to Pakistan, each one hitting women and children hardest. This is the reality that rich nations must reckon with – and commit to changing – today.
In my 14 years at the Global Fund for Women, I have observed the wave of change that comes from empowering women – what some call the “girl effect.” Making information, education, and contraception easily available offers us an affordable, no-regrets strategy that can be implemented now.
Meeting the need for family planning services is not a complex challenge. We know how to provide the commodities, services, and education that women and their families want. There are thousands of programs around the world with successful track records in every conceivable religious, cultural, and political setting.
Investing in family planning has already been proven as an essential strategy to ensure the health, safety, and development of societies. Now we know that it is also an effective way to safely steward Mother Earth through one of her most challenging crises.
Kavita N. Ramdas is chair of the Expert Working Group of the Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health and senior adviser and former president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women.
Sources: Futures Group, National Center for Atmospheric Research and the International Institute for Applied Systems, Science, UNFPA, WHO.
Photo Credit: “Chaco: Madre pilagá,” courtesy of flickr user Ostrosky Photos, and Kavita Ramdas, courtesy of Global Fund for Women.