It’s Not (Just) About the Numbers: Resource Media’s Population-Environment WebinarJuly 10, 2013 By Schuyler Null
“Unless something changes in a major way, Nigeria will pass the United States as the third most populous country by mid-century and rival China with its number of people by the end of the century,” said Ken Weiss in his introduction to a recent webinar hosted by Resource Media. But what does population growth have to do with the environment?
Quite a bit, says Weiss, a Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote a major series on population last year. “As I began to put together this Beyond Seven Billion series,” he said, “I realized that everything is connected: rapid population growth to environmental decline, of course, but it’s also connected to hunger, and poverty, and national security, and the power of women – more specifically, the lack of it.”
Weiss moderated a panel of experts including Carmen Barroso, regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region; Kim Lovell, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program; and ECSP’s own Sandeep Bathala.
“The places that are growing the fastest tend to be those where women have the least power and the fewest options to plan their families and their futures,” said Weiss. Barroso, Lovell, and Bathala spoke about population, health, and environment (PHE) programs – those “rare, small, and usually poorly funded” projects, as Weiss puts it – that work to address this nexus of conservation and women’s health.
Sandeep and Lovell also answered some follow-up questions, re-posted below from Resource Media with their permission. Watch the full webinar above and let us know what you think.
Resource Media: If tackling reproductive health and environmental issues together is such a good idea, why are there so few examples of projects that combine the two?
Sandeep Bathala: First, I think there are actually more PHE projects than we realize. In some cases, these integrated efforts are just not called “population-health-environment programs” even though they are working to meet the health and livelihood needs of populations while ensuring the sustainability of the environment upon which they depend.
In addition, it has always been a challenge to get donors and development workers out of their silos and buy-in to integrated programs. That is one reason why the Environmental Change and Security Program works to bring people from different sectors together.
More peer-reviewed research demonstrating the effectiveness of the PHE approach is needed to make the case for integration, but at least two articles have documented proven results:
An Environmental Conservation article found that integrating family planning information, advocacy, and service delivery with coastal resources management yields better results than single-sector models that provide only family planning or coastal resources management services. You can read a synthesis of the article on our blog.
Second, a case study in the Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine found that an integrated program in Nepal led to a significant increase in the use of both contraceptives and improved cookstoves. Stay tuned for our upcoming film on this project.
Kim Lovell: In my experience, many women’s rights activists are resistant to incorporating an environmental message/component in their work because: A) a past history of population control in the name of environmental/resource conservation that folks are afraid of hearkening back to; B) a belief that the rights and health of women are the only justifications needed to provide family planning; and C) that talking about fertility, population, or family planning as linked to climate and the environment places blame on women in high fertility regions for the climate impacts caused by those of us in the developed, low fertility world.
But on the other side, environmental activists don’t want to talk about family planning and population either because they already feel their issue to be controversial and a bit of a hard sell, and are resistant to adding another contentious issue (family planning = sex!) to their cadre of challenging conservation and climate asks. While I understand these concerns from both sides, I believe we would make greater progress in family planning, climate mitigation and adaptation, and development if the added benefit of integration were recognized.
RM: What resistance to family planning do you encounter, and how do you resolve these issues?
SB: Resistance to family planning stems from insufficient knowledge about contraceptive methods and how to use them, as well as fear of side effects and other health concerns. In some cases women also are afraid of opposition from their husbands, partners, or families. The comprehensive sexuality education offered by most PHE programs, which typically includes a component on communicating with your partner (or mother-in-law), helps alleviate some of these obstacles to seeking voluntary family planning methods.
KL: I’ve seen resistance to family planning come in a variety of different forms, depending on the culture and the context.
In India in 2009, we met a very young woman named Pinky who already had multiple daughters. She wasn’t using family planning because she wanted to keep having children until she had a son. In a culture where women marry into their husband’s families and men stay to take care of their parents in old age, a son was necessary social security. In this context, elevating the status and earning power of women and changing culture norms so that women can take care of their own aging families is the only pathway I see to increasing family planning acceptance and usage.
In many countries around the world, resistance to family planning comes from a belief on behalf of politicians, religious figures, and others that sex is for procreation and a woman’s value is based on her childbearing abilities. Thus, the thinking goes that family planning encourages women to be ‘promiscuous’ and/or engage in sex outside of marriage, for pleasure, or for any other reason she may see fit, which is threatening to these groups. I believe these beliefs to be harmful to women, their autonomy, and their sexual health – the solution I see, again, is elevating the status of women through increased access to education, economic opportunity, and power in one’s family and community. How often are men questioned for having sex outside of marriage, without the intention of procreating, or simply for pleasure?
I’ve also seen resistance to family planning come as a backlash to population control programs that incentivized or forced family planning on women. At one agency I visited with Sierra Club in India, the company changed hormonal contraceptive packaging to read “birth spacing pills” rather than “birth control pills” to increase receptivity among women/in a culture where memories of fertility control are still fresh. The solution to this problem, of course, is to ensure that family planning provision is entirely voluntary, with no exceptions. The ability to make this decision for one’s self a fundamental human right, as outlined at the ICPD in Cairo in 1994, and a variety of other international agreements since.
Sources: Environmental Conservation, Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, Resource Media.
Video Credit: “Not Just Numbers: Population, Environment and Human Rights,” courtesy of Resource Media.
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