6 December 2011

Africa: Women Impacted by Climate Change - But Not as Victims

Durban — "I remember when we didn't have rainfall and my mother had to pay my school fees, so when there was no yield from crops she had to sell her fridge in order for me to go to school", says Esther Agbarakwe, who grew up in the Niger Delta and heads the Nigerian Youth Climate Coalition.

"My mother believed that if I go to school I will have information about my reproductive health," continued Agbarakwe, a climate change expert at the UN Climate Talks in Durban (COP17). "My mother didn't tell me about sex, but she knew when I go to school I will get all that information".

Information about sex is not unrelated to action against climate change, according to Agbarakwe and other panelists at a high-level discussion hosted by the U.S.-based Aspen Institute, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Population Action International.

The United Nations declared a symbolic day recently to mark global population topping seven billion, but how is population growth linked to climate change and sustainable development?

It is precisely these linkages that the Aspen Institute highlighted in the panel discussion, aiming to "identify, assess and support highly innovative strategies for global health and poverty alleviation".

Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson is head of a foundation promoting the concept of "climate justice", which she says highlights a different approach to climate change. She also chairs the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health.

The council says the global population is growing by about 80 million people each year and will likely reach nine billion or more by 2050.

This puts unprecedented pressure on resources such as water, and means that food production will have to double by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The council's policy brief highlights the importance of family planning and reproductive health to support sustainable development.

"Ensuring access to reproductive health services empowers women, improves public health and breaks the cycle of poverty," the report argues. "And where women are able to choose the number and spacing of their children, population growth slows - which reduces pressure on natural resources."

"I think it's very important to have a more human centred-approach to climate - what impact is it having on communities? It's the poorest who are suffering the most," said Robinson, the council's chair. "In that context we need women in particular to be strong and resilient and be able to adapt to climate".

This links to the eight Millennnium Development Goals that set global targets in areas such as health care, women's empowerment, education, hunger and poverty reduction. Goals three to five address women's empowerment, child mortality and maternal health.

Access to family planning methods has a measurable impact on women's empowerment, according to Robinson.

"We know that there are over 215 million women who want to but don't have access to family planning methods. They have too many mouths to feed and they have the burden of having their food security undermined by climate - it's all very related," Robinson said. "Women are saying to me, 'We want to have that access; we want to have female condoms and male condoms and we want our voices heard'."

Population Action International (PAI) also advocates for women's access to contraceptives as it increases their resilience to the impact of climate change.

"Once women access the services, they become empowered and are able to better invest in themselves and in their families," said PAI's Roger-Mark de Sousa. "We find that it increases the resilience to the negative impacts of climate change, and they are able to make a difference within their communities. So there is a very strong link between family planning and women's empowerment and increasing resilience to climate change impacts."

De Sousa also noted that developing countries have difficulty accessing funding for adaptation programmes. He said that many adaptation funding mechanisms don't recognise the role of the social sector.

"I'm glad this [conference] in particular is highlighting women's leadership at the different levels," said Robinson, who credits COP 17 with creating a platform for women to contribute to climate change solutions. "At the top level, but also at community level, we're linking women leaders in particular and friendly men to listen to the voices and make this more human centred, and then we'll make the connection between the need for strong resilience and sexual reproductive health."

De Sousa was asked about criticism that Western consumption is a much bigger problem than high population in the developing world.

"We see that those who suffer the most are those in developing countries. The poor and women are the most vulnerable, so we must support efforts both for mitigation with developed countries and for less industrialised countries to adapt to those impacts, because they are having an impact on their lives now," de Sousa said.

He argued that this is not an either-or strategy, but that it must be combined.

"We must be honest about the need for industrialised countries to act, but also the developing countries can act now," he said. "There are cost-effective interventions so they are not only victims, but they can be active agents of change".

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