The Heavy Hitters of Population Growth & Women’s Rights

Jun 19th, 2012 | By | Category: Rio+20 Earth Summit

By Suzanne York,

Rio de Janeiro — Some of the biggest names in the population and women’s empowerment movement weighed in at Rio+20 on successfully promoting these topics at the UN conference and beyond.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former president of Norway and now the UN Special Envoy on Climate Change who has been around big international and environmental negotiations for decades, talked of how neither reckless consumption or rapid population are growth are sustainable and that both deserve our full attention.  A great concern, she said, is that many of the sensitivities linked to population issues are still with us.   Unsustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns, and population growth, are still challenges  we face.

In Brundtland’s opinion, at Rio and beyond, the focus must be on what women want and need, and we must put a stop to all discrimination against women and girls.  We can only succeed by enabling young women to avoid early pregnancy, breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty, and by providing education.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, stressed the importance of bringing the message of supporting family planning and reproductive health to a much wider audience and link it with women’s issues.  Reassure people this is a mainstream human development  issue.

In regards to the Rio+20 text negotiations, Robinson said it is very worrying that these issues are  not on the agenda.   “Who is trying to prevent this?” she asked?  The former Irish president challenged the audience that this is a fight that still has to be fought and we have to be prepared to fight it.

Robinson wasn’t the only speaker to touch upon tactics used to put family planning, reproductive health, and women’s empowerment front and center.  Tim Wirth, former U.S. senator from Colorado and current head of the United Nations Foundation, talked about intervention. The single most important place to intervene is in addressing the unmet need of over 200 million women who want family planning services but lack access and information. In Wirth’s opinion, filling this need is the most effective way to improve lives.

And what specifically is going on with the conference document to be finalized by governments in Rio?  Mary Robinson said what surely all in the crowded side event believe, that reproductive health and family planning must stay in the text, and it would be very worrying of course  if we go backwards.  Wirth concurred and emphasized that we need to make sure that there is no backsliding.  He stated that “this is extraordinarily dangerous” as there has been  many hard won gains related to womens rights in UN documents.

In Wirth’s opinion, derision is one of the greatest weapons in politics and we need to use it against those who want to roll back the clock.   The population and women’s rights movement needs to be outspoken and tell those opposed what we think.  Per Wirth, “they are fine in the 19th century but we are going to move ahead.”

Again, from Robinson – “We need leadership on this issue.  We need to connect the dots and integrate issues, and the essential element is the economic  empowerment of women. and the removal of discrimination, especially of the girl child, has to be front and center.”

Suzanne York is Senior Writer for Institute for Population Studies / and is reporting from Rio+20
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