Leaders at Rio+20 Must Recognize that Empowering Women Helps Protect the Planet


One of the issues swirling around Rio+20 today is whether the United Nations document from the conference will backslide on commitments to promote women’s reproductive health. Previous UN gatherings in Cairo and Beijing called for greater focus on women’s health, and yet for too many, these commitments continue to be pledges on paper. We need real action.

The fate of the earth's systems and the well being of women are so closely intertwined it is nothing short of shocking that some leaders want to separate one from another. 

There is ample evidence that nations have an easier time meeting sustainable development goals when women are empowered through education and reproductive health care—including family planning choices.

One would think that the goal of women’s empowerment was unassailable. But after I heard concerns at a session here called “Sustainability Revisited: Population, Reproductive Health and the Planet,” I became even more aware that equity and fairness for women can never be assumed. 

At the session, Musimbi Kanyoro, the president of the Global Fund for Women; Tim Wirth, the president of the United Nations Foundation; Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, Tewodros Melesse, director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federations; and Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, spoke pointedly about the need for strong and persistent advocacy to ensure that women have access to reproductive health.

They also agreed that women are often the most vulnerable to the scourge of climate change and the shortages of water, energy, and other natural resources.

Researchers have concluded that women are 14 times more likely to die as a result of storms and other extreme weather as men. Why? Because in their role as caregivers for children, the elderly, and the sick, they have less mobility in the midst of a flood or wildfire.

Yet there is a weapon that women can use to combat these dangers. Studies show that simply by giving women the tools to plan the size and timing of their families, population growth will slow and global carbon emissions will be reduced by between 8 and 15 percent—the equivalent of stopping all deforestation today. This is an extraordinary proposition. Empowering women to make critical decisions in their own lives can also contribute significantly to solving the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time.

Most women and girls want more control over how and when they build their families. And most development organizations support that aim. Now it’s time to take concrete steps to make reproductive health accessible to more women.

The speakers at today’s recommended bringing together the worlds of the environment, human rights, women rights and reproductive health care. We must look for ways to work together, because all of these worlds are connected. The fate of the human race, after all, is unalterably linked to how we manage our natural systems.

Women around the globe who work tirelessly to provide for their families, who plan for the next generation, and who don’t want to leave their children with dirtier air and fewer forests know this is true. It’s time we gave them the tools they need to realize these goals.