The Critical Role of Women in Sustainable Development

A women's education center for math and foreign languages in North Darfur, Sudan. (United Nations)

On Friday, October 26, Worldwatch Institute President Robert Engelman will join Women Deliver President Jill Sheffield on the "Women's Health: A Missing Sustainability Issue?" panel at the BSR Conference 2012. The two will discuss the links between investments in women and sustainable development goals. A version of this article appeared on the Women Deliver website.

In June 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, convened more than 100 heads of state to begin development of Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), which would reduce poverty while preserving the environment. Unfortunately, the conference missed a historic opportunity to affirm the critical link between investing in women and achieving sustainability goals.

Satisfying the unmet need for contraceptives in the developing world would reduce overall health costs and save more than $1.5 billion a year. Each $1 spent on family planning can save governments up to $6 on health, housing, water, and other services.

Regrettably, the Rio+20 organizers’ omission of a strong focus on women and sustainability is not uncommon across the global community. Women support families through wage labor, preserve traditional knowledge, maintain biodiversity, and ensure household food security and nutrition. Despite these critical roles, women and young girls continue to suffer the effects of poor healthcare, education, and discriminatory policies.

We need all hands on deck to tackle the greatest obstacles to human and sustainable development. The private sector, for example, now provides about half of the health care services in Africa and for roughly 80 percent of families in South Asia.

Below are a few issues areas to consider when discussing women and sustainability:

Reproductive health

As the world population passes 7 billion people, reducing maternal mortality and achieving universal access to reproductive health is critical to sustainability. Today, more than 200 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception. Research shows that if we were to meet women’s needs to plan the number and spacing of their pregnancies, population growth would slow and global carbon emissions would decrease by between 8-15  percent—the equivalent of stopping all current deforestation.

At the national and global levels, family planning is one of the cost-effective investments a government can make: Satisfying the unmet need for contraceptives in the developing world would reduce overall health costs and save more thanUS$1.5 billion a year. Each U.S. dollar spent on family planning can save governments up to US$6 on health, housing, water, and other public services.

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Environmental and agricultural stewardship

Women produce 50 percent of agricultural output in Asia, and represent nearly 80 percent of the agricultural labor force in parts of Africa. If women had the same access as men to agricultural resources, production would increase by 20-30 percent, and has the potential to reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent, according to research by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The impacts of climate change and environmental degradation are neither gender nor age neutral. Women and children are frequently among those most significantly affected by fluctuating commodity prices and natural disasters such as drought and famine.

Economic empowerment

Education and economic empowerment of women have significant potential to reduce poverty. The benefits of education passes to the next generation–mothers who have had an education are more than twice as likely to send their own children to school as mothers with no education.

And, according to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, on average, women reinvest up to 90 percent of their incomes back into their own households, compared to 30-40 percent by men. Currently, women’s unpaid labor is estimated to contribute up to 50 percent of GDP in some countries.

Robert Engelman and Jill Sheffield | July 11, 2012

Homepage image: A Hmong woman and her child in Sin Chai, Vietnam. (United Nations)

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