Women need to be on the Rio docket. (Photo by Cintia Barenho.)

In just two months, world leaders will gather in Rio to hammer out a new set of agreements on what sustainable development means, and more importantly, how both rich and developing nations can get there before it’s too late. Day by day, the buzz is building around this historic Earth Summit. But there’s a problem: The big plans being hatched for the occasion — nicknamed Rio+20 — leave women out.

Of course there will be scores of women leaders at the Earth Summit. But key issues that matter to women — reproductive health, gender equality, girls’ education — are notable for their absence from the agenda. That needs to change.

The fact is, sustainable development isn’t sustainable if it doesn’t include empowering women to control their own bodies, educate themselves and their kids, and have a voice in government at all levels. As long as women continue to die each day because they are denied access to sexual and reproductive health and rights — such as care during pregnancy and the right to live free of violence and discrimination — we cannot talk about sustainable development goals.

Throughout the world, many women have little say over their bodies, their land, and their resources. And a huge number of women are unable to protect their livelihoods in the face of climate change. On the flip side, empowering women creates a powerful ripple effect –enabling families and communities to be healthier and more prosperous, and helping to restore balance between people and the air, land, and water we all depend on.

Simply meeting women’s needs for contraception, in particular, would reduce maternal and child mortality, enhance human rights, increase food security, and slow the world’s population growth. In so doing, it would also substantially slow the growth of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s the cost? Not much: In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, fulfilling the unmet need for sexual and reproductive health care would cost less than Americans spent on Valentine’s Day dinners last year.

Rio+20 presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that women’s needs and women’s rights are given top priority in plans for sustainable development. In a time of multiple, interlinked human and environmental crises and very tight funding, inexpensive, multiple-benefit investments like family planning are more important than ever.

So including women and their reproductive health in the Earth Summit agenda is a no-brainer. The possibility that a new set of “Sustainable Development Goals” — to replace the Millennium Development Goals — may emerge from the Summit makes women’s full participation and inclusion even more important. Women hold up half the sky, as the old Chinese proverb says, and they must be protagonists in the next chapter of the world’s aspirations for a sustainable future.

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