Reproductive Health and Environmental Action Groups Unite


Global weather volatility and the ongoing financial crisis increase the need for new approaches to sustainable development. Meanwhile, 215 million women worldwide lack the means to choose how many children to have and when, because they lack access to reproductive health services and information.

At a panel organized by the Aspen Institute at the Kaiser Family Foundation today, leaders in environment, sustainability and women’s rights pointed to strategic collaboration as the key to the promise of sustainable development that will be revisited in negotiations at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Summit in June 2012.

“Rio+20 presents an opportunity for leaders to make courageous decisions now to ensure that our children and grandchildren inherit a livable world. The environmental and reproductive health activists must move forward together and create a more just future for all,” said panelist Mary Robinson, President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and former President of Ireland.

The original 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro established three pillars – economic, social, and environmental – as the interdependent foundation to develop sustainably. “Going forward, issues of equity and the right to development will be paramount to protect the most vulnerable people whose most basic rights to food, water and health are undermined by the impacts of climate change,” said Robinson.

The roundtable, “7 Billion: Conversations that Matter,” was part of the 7 Billion: Conversations that Matter roundtable series. Robinson and her fellow panelists were present in ’92 at Rio and in ’94 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. They included Rachel Kyte, The World Bank’s Vice President of Sustainable Development; Robert Engelman, President of Worldwatch Institute; and Carmen Barroso, Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region. The discussion was moderated by Peggy Clark, Executive Director, Aspen Global Health and Development, and Vice President, Policy Programs at The Aspen Institute.

Robinson, who chairs the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, said, “Global leaders must recognize the role of women as agents of change in their homes, communities and countries, and their intimate understanding of the inter-generational aspects of climate change.”

“It’s about the facts,” said Barroso, who talked about how her native country, Brazil, successfully dedicated resources and expertise to meet demand for family planning. “We’ve always known that there are millions of women – especially the young women – who want to delay or avoid their next pregnancy but do not have access to family planning information and services. Recent research shows that meeting this need, and thereby slowing population growth, could reduce carbon emissions by 16-29% of the emission reductions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

“It is also about human rights and social justice,” she continued. “Relatively inexpensive policies to provide comprehensive sexuality education and access to contraception can meet the basic human right to decide how many children to have. And it is just common sense – universal access to family planning is a key intervention for sustainable development.”

Robert Engelman agreed with the need to focus on the science. “Empowering women to realize their reproductive intentions would slow and eventually end the world’s population growth much faster than demographers now anticipate,” Engelman said. “Research suggests the savings in greenhouse gas emissions could be similar in 2050 to those achieved by stopping all deforestation by then, but the environmental benefits of a stable population are multiple and will keep compounding over time. Access to family planning is a concrete intervention that is relatively low-cost – especially considering these multiple benefits.”

The panel agreed that the Rio +20 Summit is an important opportunity to revisit economic, social and environmental justice and explore how they connect. Clark concluded, “We must return again to the fundamental premise of what we mean by sustainability, as first coined 25 years ago by the Brundtland Commission – and which extends beyond environmental concerns to include women, rights, population and equitable economic development.”


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