Youth need more information about climate change, but also on its links to reproductive health and gender, said Esther Agbarakwe, technical advisor for the Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Change. Speaking at the joint Aspen Institute, Population Action International, and Wilson Center side event, “Healthy Women, Healthy Planet,” at the COP-17 climate conference, Agbarakwe pointed out that “there are critical issues, like demography, the number of young people, and young women in this population, that should be discussed.” But, she said, they would likely not be brought up in any official manner at the conference because of fears about “population control.”
In Nigeria, young people, and particularly young girls, are frequently excluded from formal discussions about climate change and sustainable development. Growing up, Agbarakwe said she was aware of environmental change due to pollution in the Niger Delta, but her parents did not talk to her about reproductive health. In her community, many young girls had unplanned pregnancies and boys dropped out of school. It was only through a child rights activists’ club that she learned about how she could protect herself.
“That is why there is need to have young women in this discussion,” she said.
Giving a Voice to the Most Affected
Wendy Mnyandu, a student from Durban’s Zwelibanzi High School attending the side event, noted in an interview that climate changes have affected mothers more because they are dependent on the forest for energy.
“It is important for villagers to adapt to new technologies [such as] cook stoves, where they can use less fuelwood that will not take away the forest,” she said.
At the Wilson Center earlier this year, Agbarakwe explained how insufficient rain has led to longer trips to collect water, increasing women’s vulnerability. A friend of hers was raped while walking to the next village to fetch water after her own community’s well dried up – an ordeal that was not only emotionally and physically traumatizing, but also isolated her from her community and jeopardized her future plans and dreams.
“It is important for more men to talk about this topic,” said Roger-Mark De Souza, vice president of research at Population Action international, who also spoke at the side event. “I am talking on behalf of my mother, my daughters, my wife, and my granddaughters, for their voices are not often heard. I am a father of two young teenage boys and they know how to talk about this. By talking about it, we can see how family planning is very effective,” he said.
Talking About Population to Climate Experts, and Vice Versa
“Just last week I was in Dakar, Senegal, at the International Conference on Family Planning,” said De Souza. “I was talking to specialists and I was getting them interested in climate change.” Similarly, “more and more we find that climate change activists and specialists are appreciating that climate change is important to women and their wellbeing,” he said.
Population Action International (PAI) has mapped agricultural production, water stress, and increased vulnerability to climate change. “We see that there are 26 global hotspots where these issues are critical. What we have also done is look at these hotspots to determine where there is a very high unmet need for family planning,” said De Souza. PAI is using these maps to show the climate change community that a cost-effective investment in family planning could increase resilience in these areas.
De Souza said that in order to build support for programs that address these issues, it is important to look at national adaptation programs of action and their funding needs. “Funding is critical, and these types of interventions produce results – we need to understand where those missed opportunities are and tell that story to our policymakers and our delegations that are here in Durban and to keep with that message when we go back home,” he said.
Empowering Young African Women
Agbarakwe became interested in these issues after meeting former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, who also spoke at the side event. “I had met a Nigerian young man who challenged me that it was difficult for a woman to realize her career dreams because one day she will have to be married and bear children,” said Agbarakwe:
When I saw my passion, I was confused and asked questions of Robinson on what she would do if she found herself at the crossroads like me. She told me as a young woman, I will find myself at a crossroad. That is why I am very determined about this issue, and that is what is needed, because when young women are empowered they actually can make decisions.
We met young women and several of them had come from the Eastern Cape [of South Africa]. They had come to Durban to look for work. Instead they found themselves in rural poverty. They had dreams of a better life for themselves, but their daily reality they talked to us about was nobody’s dream. They talked to us about negative impacts of their communities – the violence against women that is very prevalent, the unplanned pregnancies, and the reality of women who even have to use their bodies to gain money.
The good thing was that they were ready to talk about the problems and did not consider themselves to be victims. They were strong women. They had learned to say ‘no’ and to say ‘respect me.’ They talked about going into some of the clinics and facing encounters with the police and that the police did not respect them. ‘We do not accept that anymore. We know now that we are members of the community who wish to be respected,’ they explained.
African women are looking for contraceptives, such as the female condom, where they can be in control, said Robinson; there are about 215 million women in the world who do not want to get pregnant but are not using modern contraception. “If we were to solve that problem, women [would not only] be better mothers, but also be better leaders in their communities,” she said.