Women and Sustainability: Recognizing the Role of Women at Rio+20

By Seyyada Burney and Emilie Schnarr

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

Self-Employed Women’s Association in Ahmedabad, India. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

From sustainable cities to renewable energy, some of the most crucial areas of development policy remain devoid of any mention or dialogue on the issue of women’s rights. To put these neglected issues on the global agenda, numerous governments, executives, NGOs, and civil society activists will gather next week to represent the voices of the women, youth, and children around the world at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20.

This meeting will mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark Earth Summit which convened thousands of people and 172 governments in 1992, and resulted in conventions on biodiversity and climate change. Poverty eradication and sustainability through a greener economy are the main topics of conversation at this month’s meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015, are also expected to be evaluated, and discussions are underway about a new global framework that looks at potential “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

Since 1992, the global community’s understanding of sustainable development, which looks at meeting the needs of current and future generations while still preserving the environment, has progressed considerably. The central role of women in planning and implementing sustainable development, however, is a topic that still needs to be addressed.

As the world population passes 7 billion, reproductive health and family planning discussions are vital. Research shows that nearly 215 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception. 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. “[Family planning is about] giving women the power to save their lives, to save their children’s lives, and to give their families the best possible future,” said Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Investing in family planning means women are able to lead healthier more productive lives. When women are healthy and have economic opportunities, they spend more money on food, housing, and education, which results in decreased poverty levels and ultimately promotes sustainable development. The International Planned Parenthood Foundation reports that women, on average, reinvest up to 90 percent of their incomes into their households, compared to only 30-40 percent by men.

As mothers, caregivers, farmers, businesswomen, and environmental stewards, women are key players in managing and protecting land and water resources, but their contributions are often ignored. Women produce 50 percent of agricultural output in Asia, represent nearly 80 percent of the agricultural labor force in parts of Africa, and bear sole responsibility for the household nutrition and wellbeing in many developing countries. The impacts of climate change and environmental degradation are neither gender nor age neutral. Women and children are frequently among those most significantly affected by fluctuating commodity prices and natural disasters such as drought and famine.

But women often do not have the resources they need to be as productive as possible. If women had the same access as men to agricultural resources, production would increase by 20 to 30 percent, and has the potential to reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent, according to research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. An extra year of education increases a woman’s income by 20 percent, delays marriage, and reduces family size.

“A positive development amidst these constraints (limited participation in economic, civic, and political life) is that many women are moving forward,” says Robert Engelman, president of the Worldwatch Institute. “They are modeling new ways of operating in society and relating to one another in ways that could make a difference—with sustainable social relations and sustainable environments.”

We need global and local leaders to advocate for the inclusion of women’s rights and needs in sustainable development. At Rio+20, Women Deliver and Nourishing the Planet are working together to emphasize the importance of maternal, sexual, and reproductive health and rights in sustainable development. We have the resources and the knowledge needed to improve the lives of women and children, but lack the political will, argues Jill Sheffield, president of Women Deliver. “Roadmaps have been drawn, health services have been integrated, and family planning programs have been expanded. It’s time to speed the process and progress.”

What are the most important issues to you at Rio? Please let us know in the comments section!

Seyyada Burney and Emilie Schnarr are research interns with Nourishing the Planet.

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