Why They Care: Reproductive Health Champions Spotlight Personal Connections to Development, Environment, MoreApril 29, 2014 By Schuyler Null
“Saving the planet depends on women achieving full human rights, and that begins with reproductive rights,” writes the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Frances Beinecke in a new set of essays on reproductive health published by the United Nations Foundation and the Aspen Institute.
Two years ago, the Aspen Institute collected stories from 15 global leaders – policymakers, heads of state, and advocates – about why reproductive health matters to them. The “Why We Care” series featured contributions from Ted Turner, Mary Robinson, Annie Lennox, and Fred Sai. This week, the series continues with 21 new voices, including the Wilson Center’s own Jane Harman and Roger-Mark De Souza, as well as a launch event Tuesday on Capitol Hill with Harman and fellow contributor Vanessa Kerry.
Stories of Empowerment and Agency
An emphasis on reproductive heath’s importance for women and girls’ empowerment and agency runs throughout the new essays, but each champion has different reasons for their support, drawn from personal stories that touch on sustaining the environment, overcoming inequality, and providing humanitarian relief, to name a few.
In his essay, Nigerian-born physician and UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin writes, “I have made it my mission to help create a world where no girl or woman is ever subjected to violence, where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.”
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson relays several harrowing experiences working in conflict zones, including watching a baby die in his arms while visiting a camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998:
These are experiences one does not forget.
Ever since, I have understood at a gut level the critical importance of basic comprehensive health care for women and children. Without it, a society disintegrates – and conflict situations bring the need to desperate levels. This is true whether the society is a desolate desert camp or a nation-state.
ECSP’s Roger-Mark De Souza reflects on his experience as part of the “Why We Care” series
This is not just a developing country problem, Wilson Center President and CEO, and former California Congresswoman, Jane Harman points out. “In the almost 240 years of America’s independence, only 294 women have served in Congress, compared to almost 12,000 men,” she writes.
“The most direct and cost-effective method” for transforming the lives of young girls who face marginalization, wherever they are, Harman writes, is “through support for programs ensuring their access to education and to sexual and reproductive health care.”
Robert Engelman, former president of the Worldwatch Institute, recalls coming to this realization while reflecting on his experiences reporting from Ecuador for the Associated Press in 1978:
When women can choose when to become pregnant, as so many in Panzos could not, they have families appropriate in size for their available resources. Children grow up better cared for and better educated. Women can be more productive outside the home, enabling their communities to become more prosperous and stable. Countries benefit in every way. And the growth of population slows.
“Saving the Planet Depends on Women Achieving Full Human Rights”
ECSP’s Roger-Mark De Souza explains seeing the empowering effects of improved access to reproductive health firsthand, both in his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago as a young man in Catholic youth group and more recently in rural Ethiopia – this time while touring a population, health, environment (PHE) program that also included sustainable development components.
“When we decided to use these services I found time to invest in learning how to take better care of my cattle,” a mother of 11 told him in Ethiopia. “I got training from the agricultural extension and the health workers. I’ve found my way now.”
Now, she tells village girls they can choose when to have children and when to invest in themselves, their education, and their families’ economic well-being. She knows about greenhouse gas emissions and farming techniques that conserve water and soil fertility. She understands that education, health care, environmental concerns, and economic growth are all part of the same fabric, knit together by healthy women.
Beinecke and the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune also link their advocacy with the environment.More than 220 million women still lack access to family planning services in the developing world
“The places where environmental degradation is the worst are also the places where women’s rights and opportunities are most compromised,” writes Brune. Beinecke points out that women are 14 times more likely to die from storms and other extreme weather events than men, because they are often responsible for looking after “children, the elderly, and the sick, and that can immobilize them during emergencies.”
Giving these women more choices and the ability to carry those choices out, can therefore pay multiple dividends – in their own health but also in the resilience of their families and communities to all kinds of damaging change. In fact, writes Roger-Mark, every $1 invested in family planning returns more than $4 in saved social and health care costs.
Awareness of gender equity, which reproductive health services are a fundamental part of, is growing every day, but more than 220 million women still lack access to family planning services in the developing world. The organizers of the series hope these stories will build support for reaching these women, to better conserve natural resources, take advantage of economic opportunities, increase access to education, and create healthier families.