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Women’s rights and environmental activists: A marriage of convenience?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 30 May 2013 15:03 GMT
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A woman carries firewood as others rest under a tree after they migrated due to a water shortage on the outskirts of Sami town in the western Indian state of Gujarat, on August 6, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
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The lingering tension between environmentalists’ view of population control as a key defense against climate change and women’s rights activists’ insistence on women’s ability to control their own fertility unexpectedly flared up Thursday at a panel discussion of experts in gender and sustainability.

The panel took place in Kuala Lumpur on the closing day of Women Deliver, the world’s largest conference on women’s health and rights, which ended a three-day run in the Malaysian capital.

Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University, fired up the controversy when he suggested the possibility that the depletion of the world’s resources may ultimately be solved only by imposing population control.

“I know it’s popular to point out that there are 222 million women with an unmet need for contraception, and if we could deal with that, we wouldn’t have such a problem with consumption,” he said.

But Singer questioned what might happen if, even with access to adequate contraception, women’s right to control their own fertility still resulted in population growth with an adverse effect on the environment.

“Some people think that rights are absolute, that once you say a woman has a right to control her fertility, that’s it. Are the rights we’re talking about absolute or prima facie,” he asked, referring to facts that are presumed to be true unless disproved upon closer inspection or changing circumstance.

“I do hope we never get to a point where we have to override it,” he said of a woman’s right to control her own fertility. But, raising the concept of imposing curbs on that right, he added, “I don’t think we should ever shrink from that as a possibility.”

His hypothetical suggestion brought a sharp response from fellow panelist Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

“I want to draw a line in the sand - a red line,” Osotimehin said. “There’s no way we’re going to come to a point where we’re going to limit the rights of people to make decisions about themselves.”


Although there is a growing recognition of the connection between environmental erosion and population growth as one of the many factors contributing to it, the exchange underscored a long-standing mutual suspicion and rift between some environmentalists and women’s rights advocates.

It is a division that some find hard to understand, including Kenneth Weiss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist at the Los Angeles Times, who also was on the panel.

Weiss said one of the surprises to him - particularly in his travels through Asia and Africa where population growth is greatest and women’s power weakest - has been how the conservation and women’s health communities don’t talk to each other.

“You’re both nurturing. You both care about the future,” he said of the two camps. “You both think that population is a dirty word.  I think it’s just a word,” he said.

“It also surprises me that you don’t work together and conspire together to make progress on these fronts,” he added, referring to environmental protection and women’s empowerment.

He cited an example of such cooperation in the Philippines, where people were suffering from inadequate food on an island where the growing population was outstripping resources.  Local fishermen, faced with dwindling catches, had resorted to “blast fishing,” where they were essentially blowing up coral reefs to flush out the fish.

The destruction of the reefs resulted in even fewer and smaller fish, Weiss said, leaving villagers still hungry.

While conservationists were concerned about the reefs, a physician who specialized in women’s health focused on another aspect of the problem by introducing birth control to the islanders who wanted to reduce the size of their families.

It resulted in a programme crafted through teamwork between women’s health advocates and environmentalists, he said.

Weiss suggested more such cooperation take place between the two groups and less “vilifying” of each other.

“There is a lot of distrust between the environmental community and the women’s rights movement and you also have a lot in common,” he said. 

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