Women’s Rights and a Sustainable World Go Hand in Hand

Aug 29th, 2013 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York, www.howmany.org

Women’s health and reproductive rights go hand in hand with a sustainable environment. When women’s needs are met, they are able to better manage resources, confront the effects of climate change and handle climate mitigation and adaptation, and overall support sustainable communities.

Biodiversity loss affects access to education and gender equality by increasing the time spent by women and children in performing routine tasks, such as collecting valuable resources like fuel, food and water.

Environmental activists at Rio+20: Marina Silva, Sheyla Jurana, and Vandana Shiva [photo credit: Kim Lovell]

We must emphasize the connections among family planning, environmental sustainability, and women’s empowerment. Family planning and women’s rights are low-hanging fruit – women want this, it’s fairly easy to support and promote, and is inexpensive in the scheme of things.

This means ensuring education for women and girls, providing access to health care, including voluntary family planning services, recognizing greater land rights, reducing and eradicating gender and economic inequality, ending child marriages, and improving economic opportunities. This will allow women – who bear the brunt of environmental problems – to be able to deal with the increasingly severe environmental problems affecting communities worldwide. Women are on the front lines of climate change and once their needs are met, they can use traditional knowledge and skills that many have to help overcome pressing environmental issues.

Women are the traditional caretakers of their community and stewards of their environment. Their responsibilities put them in a position to better adapt to changing environmental realities. Empowering women often leads to more effective use and conservation of natural resources.

At the UN Rio+20 Earth Summit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced to conference delegates that “women must be empowered to make decisions on whether and when to have children” if the world is to attain agreed-upon sustainable development goals.

The late Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, founder of the Green Belt Movement, and deputy minister for the Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya, always spoke passionately on the need to heal the planet. She saw women as the key. Through the Green Belt Movement, she helped women in rural Kenya plant and care for millions of trees, thereby empowering women – and communities – to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods. It began by training women to properly plant and cultivate seedlings, as a way to address deforestation and to generate a source of income for women. Today it is a strong force in promoting and protecting local environment, economy and culture.

Women and the Environment. Click image to see infographic. Image courtesy of Resource Media.

In Maathai’s opinion, poverty and environmental issues are closely linked. People are dependent upon the land, water, and forests.  The environment ensures livelihoods of communities. In her words, “These two, they are like two sides of the same coin; they cannot be separated.”  As for population, Maathai said “To me, there is a very close connection between the numbers, the level of poverty and the rate at which the environment is destroyed.”

In her book Replenishing the Earth, Maathai wrote about the ecological crisis we are facing today. She said, “Addressing it requires a new level of consciousness, where we understand that we belong to the larger family of life on Earth…it should be in our nature to be custodians of the planet and do what’s right for the earth and, in the process, for ourselves.”


Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.


(The above is an excerpt from the IPS report People’s Rights, Planet’s Rights: Holistic Approaches to a Sustainable Population.)

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