Days from now, some 130 heads of state and tens of thousands of activists from around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the “Rio + 20” Earth Summit. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently laid out his vision for the conference in a New York Times article entitled “The Future We Want.”
Ki-moon expressed hope that the meeting will inspire new thinking, focus on people, and issue a “clarion call” for smarter resource use. He gave a nod to the importance of women, who “hold up half the sky,” and of young people, “the very face of our future.”
Still, one crucial ingredient went without mention: sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The inclusion of SRHR and access to family planning completes the jigsaw puzzle of a just and sustainable world.
To understand why, consider the lives of the women who sell dried fish in my province — Leyte, in the Philippines. The women of Leyte are on the front lines of an unfolding environmental crisis. The gulf they depend on for their livelihood has been ravaged by overfishing and the destruction of coral reefs, forests, and mangroves. Where fishers once reeled in up to 50 kilograms a day, the average has now dropped to just 0-5 kilograms, barely enough to feed a family.
And climate change has disrupted the weather, making it too unpredictable to dry fish under the heat of the sun. The result, for the women of Leyte, is a substantial loss of income.
Large families are still the norm in Leyte, where most women have more than four children [PDF]. Many would like to prevent or delay having another child; one in three births is unwanted or mistimed [PDF]. But too many lack access to family planning and reproductive health services and information.
High fertility and declining income forces families to make painful choices. In many cases, one or two or even more of the children will be the “sacrificial lamb” who goes to work so at least some of their siblings can go to school. Most parents — especially mothers — want their children to finish school, since access to quality education can end the cycle of poverty. My own grandmother, who was widowed at the age of 33, struggled to make ends meet so that all of her four children could finish college and provide a promising future for their children.
Climate change and resource depletion will eventually affect all of the world’s people. But it is already gravely affecting the dried fish sellers in Leyte. There are efforts under way to help. The Green Climate Fund will finance climate adaptation in developing countries, and much can be done to promote better land use, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and secure rights for indigenous people.
These measures are necessary, but they are not sufficient. To make a powerful difference in the lives of the women of Leyte, we must ensure that SRHR and family planning are included in efforts to address climate change and promote sustainable development.
Family planning and SRHR is a potential game changer. Women who are empowered to make choices about childbearing are healthier and more resilient. They are more likely to invest in their children’s education; they and their children are less likely to be poor.
Imagine if the estimated 215 million women who now lack access to contraception [PDF] were able to plan their families. Imagine unleashing the potential of 600 million adolescent girls by ensuring their access to education, opportunities, and rights. In fact, imagine if every one of the planet’s 3 billion young people were empowered with rights and opportunity. Imagine that those young men and women are able to make informed choices to stay healthy and free of HIV; to marry if they choose and raise healthy, happy families. Imagine breaking the cycle of poverty and gender-based violence that has haunted humanity for generations and generations.
That is the future I want.
To make that future real, we must first guarantee basic human rights for women and young people. We must build a sustainable economy that is inclusive, not divisive; sustaining, not depleting. But most of all, we must ensure provision of basic social services such as education, health, and family planning for all.
We are a long way from these goals. Of the countries that have submitted plans for adapting to climate change, only the small island state of Sao Tome and Principe has included SRHR and family planning in their sustainable development plans. This is disheartening.
Yet, I do not lose hope. As Philippine Senator Gregorio Honasan said recently, “Doubt is the opposite of faith. And faith is the source of hope.” He is right; we should not lose faith. We need to work hard to bring family planning and SRHR to the Earth Summit negotiating tables. Let’s start with our own government leaders as they head to Rio this week.