This summer, 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. However, for the scores of women who will be attending, there are glaring omissions: reproductive health, gender equality and girls education are nowhere to be found on the Rio+20 agenda.
I know that women offer the most promising levers for the transformation to sustainable development. My experience around the world tells me that women are full of creative and strategic solutions to the problems facing their communities. Their voices must be included in critical decisions affecting our world. And the fact is, sustainable development isn't sustainable if it doesn't include empowering women to plan their families, educate themselves and their children, and have a voice in government at all levels. Rio+20 must have human rights – and women's rights at its core. Earth summit planners haven't yet done that, but women can make it happen.
Women are 51 percent of the world's population, yet own only 1 percent of its assets. Women are 2/3 of the world's workers, but earn a mere 10 percent of the wages. Rio+20 must not become another forum in which women's voices are not heard. Instead, the summit must demonstrate that women's voices are integral to all development. Environmental sustainability simply can't happen without women's inclusion.
For example, in West Africa, women make up 70 percent of workers in agriculture. In Burkina Faso, deforestation, water scarcity and soil erosion show us that climate change is already impacting women farmers. Women tend to “sacrifice themselves” in order to care for their families---feeding themselves last. And women are most likely to suffer and die in environmental disasters – particularly in the Asian countries most at risk from climate change.
So how do we support women while supporting the environment that sustains us all? Simply meeting women's needs for family planning is one inexpensive and powerful development strategy with a host of environmental benefits. Over 200 million women around the world want, but don’t have access to, basic contraceptives like condoms, pills and IUD’s. 179 nations already agree that meeting this need is a top priority.
Satisfying this demand would dramatically reduce maternal and child mortality and enhance human rights. What's more, two recent studies show that a reduction of 8 to 15 percent of essential carbon emissions can be obtained by providing family planning to all women who want it. This reduction would be equivalent to stopping all deforestation or increasing the world’s use of wind power fortyfold.
The Earth Summit presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that women's needs, and rights, are given top priority in plans for sustainable development. In a time of multiple, interlinked human and environmental crises and a very tight funding environment, investing in women is a clear winner.
A greater understanding of the impact of environmental degradation, pollution and climate change on women, coupled with solid public policy that respects and protects women’s reproductive rights is essential to the “Sustainable Development Goals” that many believe will come out of Rio+20. As the Summit approaches, it's time reflect on why women’s full participation and inclusion is so important, then call for world leaders to harness the power of women as we launch the era of sustainable development.