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Women and Sustainability: What You Want to Know About Rio+20

By: Women Deliver and Worldwatch Institute

Women Deliver is collaborating with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project  to highlight the important role of women, youth, and sexual and reproductive health and rights in sustainable development at the upcoming Rio+20 conference.

Rio+20 is a key moment for advocates of reproductive health and rights to ensure that leaders understand and support the central role of reproductive health and voluntary family planning in sustainable development.  Below are some common questions about Rio+20 and the role of women in sustainability.

What is Rio+20?
This week, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development will draw global leaders to Rio de Janeiro to discuss how to ‘green’ the economy and reduce poverty around the world. After Stockholm in 1972 and Rio in 1992, it is the third and biggest in a series of landmark global gatherings that aims to find a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.

Leaders will grapple with two main themes: How to build a green economy that reduces poverty and preserves the environment for future generations, and how to improve global governance on this issue. A central aim is to start a process so that by 2015, the international community can agree on a set of global ‘sustainable development goals’ - with targets for consumption and production, a mechanism for periodic follow up and reports, and specific actions for key areas such as water, food and energy. 

Who is attending?
Representatives from more than 190 countries, including 130 leaders, will participate in the formal session. In addition, it is estimated that 50,000 participants from civil society and business groups will take part in side events and the People's summit.

What is the link between reproductive health and sustainability?
As the world population passes 7 billion, increased access to reproductive health and voluntary family planning is vital. Nearly 215 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception. Research shows that if we were to meet women’s needs to plan the number and spacing of their pregnancies, population growth would slow and global carbon emissions would decrease by between 8-15 % – the equivalent of stopping all deforestation today.

The human toll of the unmet need for contraception is staggering. The World Health Organization estimates that there are almost 80 million unintended pregnancies each year, which lead to approximately 20 million unsafe abortions and 68,000 maternal deaths annually. Every year, 16 million young girls become mothers.

Progress towards Millennium Development Goal 5, which aims to reduce maternal mortality rates by 75% by 2015, can be made through cost-effective solutions such as encouraging women’s education and empowerment. Research shows that one additional year of education can raise women’s incomes by up to 20% while simultaneously reducing fertility rates and delaying marriages.

Why do we need gender equality to implement sustainability?
Women are also critical in agriculture and food security efforts. Women farmers make up 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. Estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization show that if women had equal access to resources, such as land, training, technology, and credit, food production would increase by 20 to 30 %, which could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17%.

Investing in women’s education furthers economic goals and improves the health and wellbeing of future generations. According to the World Bank, a one year increase in education of all adult women in a country corresponds to an increase of $700 in GDP per capita. Educated women tend to marry later and have fewer children. Their own children, in turn, tend to have lower infant mortality rates, higher school enrollment, and suffer less from malnutrition.  

According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), on average, women reinvest up to 90% of their incomes back into their own households (compared to only 30-40% by men), ensuring that the benefits of development spread to both their local communities and their environment.

They support families through wage labor and  preserve traditional knowledge, maintain biodiversity, and ensure household food security and nutrition. Despite this, women and young girls continue to suffer the effects of poor healthcare, education, and discriminatory policies. Ensuring women have equal access to economic opportunities and services is a required strategy for reducing poverty, malnutrition, and maternal mortality. 

What are advocates saying?
The Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health (GLC) and other advocates are calling on the negotiators at Rio+20 to ensure that reproductive health and voluntary family planning are part of any comprehensive strategy for sustainable development. In a statement this week, the council declared their desired outcome at Rio:

 “As members of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, we call on the negotiators at the Rio+20 conference to ensure that reproductive health and voluntary family planning have a central role in any comprehensive strategy for sustainable development.”

Expanding voluntary family planning services will improve the health and well-being of women and their families, help slow population growth, and make it easier for governments to address the needs of their people, while developing sustainably. When women are able to plan the size of their families, they and their children are healthier, better educated, and more economically productive. 

To accomplish this, the GLC argues that strong language on reproductive health is vital to negotiations authored at Rio+20:

“The language must be reflected in the first two sections of the negotiating document, demonstrating that the words have meaning and will be followed by action. Including reproductive health in a comprehensive strategy for sustainable development is the right and smart thing to do.”

“We cannot afford to leave women marginalized,” the Executive Director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), Michelle Bachelet, told reporters recently. “This is not sustainable. This social exclusion of women is not only hurting women, it is hurting all of us.”

The IPPF has also demanded that Rio+20 summit must not ignore rapid population growth:
“Across the world more than two in five pregnancies are unplanned. Clearly this is a wasted opportunity to boost development and stabilize population growth - through something women want and need, the ability to decide when to become pregnant…More than 215 million women in the developing world who wish to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy are still not using an effective method of contraception. This unmet need highlights just how far reproductive health and rights have slipped off the agenda: just at the time when it should be key to the challenge of sustainable development.”

Flickr photograph via Stop Climate Chaos Coalition.

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