Sex and Sustainability Make Good Bedfellows

Carmen Barroso, Regional Director

My interest in the connections between women’s rights and environmentalism comes from a place of self-interest. Since one lifetime isn’t long enough to take on two battles of such enormity, I’m glad these two important issues have intrinsic synergy. Empowering women supports healthier families and communities, and creates ripple effects that increase environmental sustainability.

I have devoted my career—both in my native Brazil and now the United States— to fighting for women’s rights, but I’m also concerned about the way our systems of production and consumption are affecting the health of the planet. For quite some time, I’ve been telling fellow activists that our causes are mutually reinforcing. I’ve suggested that we should join forces to end the simultaneous devastation to women and the environment. While this call to action has received a lot of lip service from both movements, the advancement of a shared agenda has been less than stellar.

One obstacle to integrating women’s rights and environmental sustainability agendas is that international health donors have become increasingly focused on measurable results. In principle, this shift is a positive one. We all need to be more accountable for the efficient use of resources, and too often nonprofits do not measure what we treasure because social change is slow and incremental. But when it comes to women’s health, specifically investments in contraceptives, this new paradigm has its problems.

The standard indicator used to measure the success of family planning programs is the number of years a couple will be protected against unwanted pregnancies. This indicator encourages the promotion of long-acting contraceptives, such as the intrauterine device and implants. Although many women want to use long-acting contraceptives, they should not be promoted to the exclusion of other methods. Male and female condoms have the added advantage of protecting against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and they are more appropriate for people who have multiple partners or aren’t ready to start a family.

These long-acting methods also have significance for many women’s rights advocates who recall a bygone era when population growth was seen as the major driver of economic and social ills, and numerical targets related to contraceptive use led to the neglect of proper health education and informed consent – particularly for women and men in developing countries. This faulty framework was toppled with the ICPD Cairo Programme of Action almost twenty years ago, but many women’s health and rights advocates still fear that population control could rear its ugly head again. As a result, they avoid alliances with environmental movements and are reluctant to acknowledge that population growth does play a role in environment degradation.

To move forward together, we must recognize the legitimacy of population growth concerns while being realistic about the role population growth plays in environmental degradation. We cannot become neo-Malthusian fatalists who believe overpopulation is inevitable and all we can do is mitigate the damage. This ignores the more than 200 million women around the world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but do not have access the means to do so. It ignores the fact that half of the births in regions like Latin America are unplanned. And it ignores that cost-effective sexual and reproductive health programs empower women to make autonomous decisions about the number and spacing of children, which can have a positive impact on sustainability.

In the end, I don’t need to choose between women’s rights and environmentalism. The most important things the two movements can do are to listen to and learn from each other. There is power and progress in numbers, and I have no doubt that together, we can achieve a healthy, sustainable planet and create a just world for all.

How Are Environment and Reproductive Health Communities Working Together for Rio+20?


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