Marking its 50th anniversary this year, 2020’s Earth Day focused on climate change, aiming to fill the world with hope, optimism and spur action - sentiments needed now more than ever, as we face the global health pandemic, COVID-19.
Even though women are less likely to die from COVID-19, it is often the most marginalised who are hardest hit by the long-term health, social and economic impacts of crises. With communities facing unparalleled disruptions during the pandemic, women and girls around the world face unique risks to their wellbeing and livelihoods, even if they do not contract the virus.
From more than 40 years’ experience, Marie Stopes International understands more than most the unique gender-related issues faced by the already vulnerable communities we serve during a crisis. On Earth Day, it’s vital to recognise that the climate crisis is no different.
When it comes to the climate emergency and natural disasters, women and girls, especially those in the global south, are particularly and disproportionately impacted by their effects. Women experience higher death rates when environmental crises do occur, and existing levels of inequality and poverty are made even worse.[i]
This is truly unfair given that women in the global south and their communities are by far the smallest contributors to the current climate crisis.
On Earth Day 2016, the landmark Paris Agreement was signed by over 120 countries as part of a historic climate protection treaty. For the first time ever, climate change’s impact on women and girls was formally recognised.
And it was needed, because when the impact of gender in climate response is formally recognised, governments can be held responsible for their commitments. Recognition also ensures that the perspective of women and girls is represented in leadership and decision-making forums during climate responses, leading to more effective action.
However, like any other crisis, as countries are put under strain due to climate change, essential women’s health services like access to contraception, safe abortion and prenatal and maternal care are often deprioritised, leaving women and girls vulnerable to unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortion and maternal death.
But at Marie Stopes International, we understand that when women and girls are given the tools to decide whether and when to have children, the health, livelihoods and resilience of not only them as individuals, but also their families and their communities, increase significantly. Ensuring choice for women and girls is key to accelerating global efforts to address the climate crisis.
And it makes sense: reproductive rights, resilience and climate action should go hand in hand. Easy access to contraception means girls can stay in school, women can work and earn money, and have greater knowledge and decision-making powers in their families and communities. And with greater gender equality comes greater personal and community resilience. When women and girls are resilient, they can better adapt to the impacts of climate change.
In Niger, where famine and drought have become part of a tough environmental landscape that women and their families must contend with, access to contraception is the difference between being able to feed a family when drought hits.
By preventing unplanned pregnancies, contraception reduces both maternal and new-born mortality rates and improves the overall health and well-being of women and their existing children. For girls and younger women who are not physically mature enough to give birth, contraception can mean the difference between life and death and if women are unable to space pregnancies by more than 18 months, pregnancy is a significant health risk for women of any age.
Contraception also supports more resilient health systems and every $1 spent on preventing unintended pregnancy reduces the cost of pregnancy related care by $2.20.
In Zambia, the hard work to integrate development, family planning and climate response efforts has already begun. In 2017, Maire Stopes Zambia teamed up with the Frankfurt Zoological Society to integrate community education for both conservation and family planning in North Luangwa, with great success. Men have shown increased support for family planning, whilst women and girls are more actively engaged in conservation and anti-poaching efforts. The project has since expanded to Nsumbu National Park and our partners are confident that in the long-term, this partnership will have a positive impact on the environment and the reduction of poaching and other human-wildlife conflicts.
So, what does this mean for the future, and on this Earth Day, how can we ensure that women’s unique perspectives and experiences are understood, so they can become agents of change when it comes to climate action?
It’s simple: to participate effectively in climate adaptation – in whatever form that takes -- women must be healthy, educated and empowered. Ensuring reproductive choice for women and girls is a powerful way to get closer to our shared goal of gender equality. If realised across the globe, progress in climate action will take a huge leap forward.
[i] Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper. 2008. The gendered nature of natural disasters: the impact of catastrophic events on the gender gap in life expectancy, 1981–2002. LSE. Viewed April 20th 2020. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/3040/1/Gendered_nature_of_natural_disasters_%28LSERO%29.pdfBack to news