Reproductive Rights & Climate Change: Are they Related?


In the world’s least developed regions, including most of Sub-Saharan Africa, a quarter of women have an unmet need for family planning, either for spacing births or limiting births. Along with small island developing states, countries across Sub-Saharan Africa are slated to continue to experience the greatest impacts from climate change, yet overall, they are the least able to adapt to a changing climate. Policy makers at national and international levels are increasing starting to see the nexus between reproductive rights, climate change mitigation, and climate change adaptation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Meeting unmet need for family planning mitigates climate change, improves maternal and child health, and helps people adapt to a changing climate. In the past, because of the sensitivity of both climate change and population growth, high-level discussions on climate change have excluded the role that rapid population growth plays in exacerbating vulnerability in developing countries, and left voluntary family planning out of the mitigation and adaptation solutions. As stated in the recent publication Population, Poverty, and Climate Change, “the effect of a 40 percent reduction in CO2 emissions per capita in developed countries between 2000 and 2050 would be entirely offset by the increase in emissions attributable to expected population growth in poorer countries over this period.” There are an estimated 222 million women in the world who would like to access family planning, but are not yet able to. Meeting the unmet needs of these women would enhance their reproductive rights, improve health of women and children, mitigate climate change, and help vulnerable communities adapt. And, investing in family planning is cost-effective – it costs less than $5 per capita in developing countries to provide voluntary family planning to an additional 215 million women who want it.

It’s time to Put Women at the Center of Climate Change Solutions. By meeting the reproductive rights of women around the world, we can craft solutions that benefit women, their families, and the world, through efforts like the Oasis Initiative in the Sahel, West Africa. Following the lead of countries such as Kenya and Malawi, governments in Sub-Saharan Africa should continue to prioritize this issue and openly discuss the multiple co-benefits for people and our environment that could emerge from linking voluntary access to family planning and climate change mitigation and adaptation, and encourage bilateral and multilateral donors to do the same.


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6 Responses to “Reproductive Rights & Climate Change: Are they Related?”

  1. priscillanowusu Says:

    Hi Kristen,
    Thank you for posting a very important and interesting piece on reproductive rights and climate change. This message is very relevant, given that the linkage between the two problems is not immediately apparent.
    In viewing the video attachment, I realize that the women decide to limit their births a little “too late.” That it, after they themselves have begun to cope with the detrimental health and economic effects of not practicing family planning.
    As public health practitioners, the take home message for us is to begin to “empower” women early – i.e. before child bearing begins on the options that exist for limiting or spacing births. Empowerment is often used as a poorly-defined catchword, but here I use it in terms of giving women knowledge about family planning resources that would enhance their economic well-being. It also refers to local governments’ taking responsibility for making available all possible resources to engender the practice of family planning– be it by training and equipping CHWs to deliver family planning services to women, or making contraceptives highly subsidized or even free to rural women who need them the most.
    Lastly, a point about targeting men in the family planning agenda: I realize that policy implementation procedures should incorporate the messages that dissociate “manliness (?)” or social status with having many children. I know that in many 3rd world countries, the more children a man has, the more he is respected in the community. Educative messages should emphasize the importance of having an adequate number of children according to one’s economic capability, instead of having so many children that it becomes a burden for one to raise. Men should also be reeducated to keep in mind the linkage between having a limited number of children and being able to properly maintain a decent economic status (also related to social status).
    Very interesting piece, Kristen! Women’s repro rights is definitely a topic that resonates well with me.


  2. nkemdi Says:

    Hi Kristen,
    I find your post fascinating yet educative as realization dawned on me. I have never for once thought through the impact of weathering change on issues like crop failure, water scarcity and its transcending impact on women’s health and livelihood. Women living in poverty for sure bear a disproportionate burden of climate change consequences and yet women are important agents of change. I would really like to learn more about the oasis initiative and its role in supporting women through family planning. I completely concur with your proposal and join in driving the message to empower the women and make available resources for family planning. The men should not be left out; family planning strategies should be encouraged among them as well.


  3. kristenppatterson Says:

    Priscilla and Nkem,
    Thank you for your interesting comments, especially on the inclusion of men in family planning and family size. I really like the idea of promoting awareness of the benefits of family planning early in a woman’s reproductive life as a way of promoting resilience on multiple levels.

  4. ericadaquila Says:

    Hi Kristen,

    Wow, great post! I really enjoyed the video as well. The connection between unmet need for contraception and climate change is very interesting, and I think more people should be made of aware of it!

    I think it is quite an injustice when you realize the impact that energy abuses in high-income countries is having on low- and middle-income countries. High-income countries easily find ways to overcome the negative effects of climate change; yet, these solutions are often nonexistent in low- and middle-income countries. There are no solutions for when the food you plant to eat does not grow or when the water you once relied on is no longer there. This is ultimately a devastating reality, and I agree that more efforts need to be made to provide women with family planning practices to protect their health and the health of their families due to the realities that climate change is inflicting upon them (e.g., food and water scarcity).

    Within the field of global health we are often reminded to adopt a multidisciplinary systems thinking framework in order to have the biggest “bang for our buck” and I think your topic of climate change and unmet need for contraception is a prime example of how this sentiment is very true.

    I served with the Peace Corps in Suriname. During my service, I often traveled with the women of my community to their farms to plant rice and vegetables. It was very apparent to me how precious these farms were to the women of my community. These farms were the only source of food for their families, which were forever growing due to the lack of access and acceptance of family planning practices. Looking at if from this perspective, it is clear that the climate change and population growth are in fact two very related topics that should be addressed in order to improve and protect global health.

  5. maxjromano Says:

    Seems like a majorly important reproductive and environmental justice issue. I appreciated how you framed this as an issue of *voluntary* access to family planning, and how that one key aspect of the discussion is effective climate change *adaptation*. I think this appeals on both a rational and emotional level for readers that brings the conversation from political discussion about who is ethically responsible for causing climate change towards an actionable discussion of how we can prepare most effectively for the inevitable future. If we can accept that climate change is a reality and that it will disproportionately affect people whose livelihoods depend on the climate, then we can begin to discuss how we want to prepare for the future.

  6. kristenppatterson Says:

    Erica and Max,

    Thank you for your comments and insights. You’ve given me helpful ideas for how to continue to think about framing these issues.


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