Women at the Center of a Sustainable World

The world is converging. Our communities are more interconnected and also more vulnerable. The changing climate is disrupting weather around the world as drought, flooding, and extreme heat put food and water supplies at risk and threaten millions of lives every year. All of these dynamics threaten the earth's ability to sustain human communities.

Is there a simple solution to this flock of "black swan" events? Yes and no.

Nothing is ever simple, but the global community can so something today that is guaranteed to ensure safer, healthier communities and more resilient natural systems for decades to come: invest in women and, especially, in their reproductive health and rights.

This week marks World Population Day, and with it will come the usual discussions of population control and fear-based talk of humanity's growing numbers. But the fact is that when women are in charge of their reproductive destinies, population growth becomes less of an issue, and the relationship between people and the planet begins to stabilize. That's because women know what's best for themselves and their families. When they're empowered with the basic tools of birth control (like condoms and pills), women choose family sizes that work for them and for their communities.

Today, over 220 million women around the world aren't ready for another baby but aren't using modern contraception. This unmet need hurts women, children, and families deeply. When the need (for birth-control tools and empowering education) is met, however, maternal and infant mortality rates fall dramatically, and women and children are far healthier. Something else happens, too, purely as a side effect: Population grows more slowly, and people are able to manage their natural resources in ways that will sustain their communities for the long term.

It's a virtuous cycle. Healthy, thriving women both create and depend on healthy, thriving communities. Empowering women with options for their families is essential to a creating a sustainable world. Likewise, sustainable communities are inseparable from a healthy environment. Without clean air, healthy forests, and abundant fish and wildlife, we cannot have healthy cities and towns. But a healthy environment depends on communities that are empowered to make decisions that work for them about how fast to grow. As a result, family planning stands out as an opportunity to improve the health of women and children, while increasing people's resilience to environmental challenges.

On the flip side, when the environment is threatened, women are threatened too. In much of the world, women bear the brunt of the responsibility for providing food and water for their families and for collecting fuel to heat their homes and cook meals. So when their communities are affected by pollution, over-fishing, deforestation, and other traditional environmental issues, women are the hardest hit. This is particularly true in areas where livelihoods are tied to the land. And as extreme weather linked to climate disruption affects crops, water supplies, wildfire seasons, and other issues around the globe, it harms women everywhere.

That's why it's essential that we both protect the environment and provide access to family planning. This year, as world leaders prepare to set new goals for globally sustainable development, we should remember that true sustainability requires meeting the needs of people and the planet. Universal access to reproductive healthcare is a way to help us achieve both.