Women were mentioned in less than 0.01 percent of the text. And only two of the 283 sections addressed women’s needs for family planning.
At first, this might not seem like a big deal. It’s easy to think of Rio as a purely environmental conference, dealing with issues related to sustainable development and a green economy. It’s easy to say that Rio is not about “women’s issues.”
Well, we have some news for you: You can’t have sustainable development without women. Despite the best efforts of women leaders in government and civil society, strong statements on access to contraception and reproductive health services are still in doubt. Of theseven priority areas of discussion at the summit, none included a focus on women’s health and empowerment.
The stakes at Rio are huge. Time is running out to develop plans for economic growth that reduce poverty without harming our environment. But there is no path to a sustainable future that doesn’t include women. Leave them out, neglect their needs, and risk failure.
Right now, more than 200 million women in developing countries want the right to plan their families, but lack contraception. Meeting their needs would not only improve their lives, but would help them respond to the effects of climate change, practice sustainability, and participate more fully in the economy and their communities.
Consequences of environmental change — floods, droughts, crop failure — affect everyone, but are especially hard on women and families. As the primary people responsible for gathering water, firewood, and other household resources, women are on the front lines of the climate crisis. When they are able plan the timing of their own childbearing, they can better adapt to the unpredictable impacts of climate change, and ensure the survival of their families.
Powering these households and ensuring access to electricity is essential. Investing in small-scale, distributed clean energy sources like solar is the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable method to provide electricity to women and families. This will create more resilient and robust rural communities while reducing the burden on families who are heavily reliant on dangerous kerosene for electricity.
Empowering women to make these critical decisions in their own lives can also contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Studies show that slowing population growth by giving women access to the contraception they already want could reduce emissions by between 8 and 15 percent [PDF] — roughly equivalent to ending all tropical deforestation.
Family planning and reproductive health are also fundamental to promoting environmental sustainability. A woman who cannot access contraception may have more children than she can afford to feed and educate. She will need more resources to take care of her growing family. In contrast, couples who can plan their own childbearing are better able to manage other aspects of their lives, including their use of natural resources. Access to family planning helps women raise healthy and stable families, which protects valuable natural resources for future generations.
As the world population grows, the demand for water, forests, and land mounts, and pressure on resources intensifies. The most resource-stressed areas typically have few resources, high population densities, and high population growth rates. Meeting the needs of a rapidly growing population not only taxes resources, but is a significant economic challenge for many of the world’s poorest countries.
Investing in women is a powerful antidote to poverty. Women who are able to delay childbearing are more likely to meet their educational goals, obtain productive employment, and increase household income. Smaller family sizes also allow more children to be educated, and promote girls’ education. In turn, educated women tend to have smaller families, and more resources to invest in their children.
Employment for women is also important to achieving full potential in the labor market, and growing a green economy. Currently, the proportion of working-age women who are employed lags behind men in all regions. Yet women are indispensable in agriculture, producing up to 80 percent of the world’s food, and their unpaid labor is estimated to contribute up to 50 percent of GDP in some countries. By preventing unintended pregnancies, family planning can enhance women’s employment opportunities, and increase their financial contribution to communities and nations.
In short, ensuring that women have access to contraception promotes sustainable economic growth. And it’s a cost-effective investment. Every dollar spent on family planning can save $2 to $6 in other development areas.
To those who say women’s issues are a distraction from the Rio+20 negotiations, we say nothing could be further from the truth. They are at the heart of this great challenge, and provide the foundation for creating a more sustainable world.
Suzanne Ehlers, president and CEO of Population Action International, has worked for the last 15 years to promote women’s health, rights, and empowerment across the globe.
Michael Brune is the executive director of The Sierra Club. His book Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal was published by Sierra Club Books in September 2008.