There is a direct correlation between access to voluntary family planning, women's empowerment and environmental sustainability. And though the official delegates to last week's "Earth Summit" tried to water it down, thousands of grassroots activists made it one of the biggest issues to rock Rio+20, as the event was also called.
Why? Because ensuring that women have full reproductive rights creates one of the most desirable "two-fers" on the planet. Complete access to voluntary family planning is among the quickest, simplest, and most affordable ways to improve women's quality of life. It is also one of the most direct, immediate and cost-effective ways to reduce climate change. In fact, studies show that slowing population growth by giving women access to the contraception they already want could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 8 and 15 percent -- roughly equivalent to ending all tropical deforestation.
Women took these issues to Rio because more than 200 million women in the U.S. and around the world cannot choose whether or when to have a baby, simply because they don't have access to voluntary family planning. Groups like the Global Fund for Women and International Planned Parenthood Federation spent several days last week making their case, button-holing delegates, meeting with celebrities, blogging and tweeting, and protesting in the streets.
In the end, as Grist reported, the Rio+20 outcome document -- though 49 pages long and consisting of 23,917 words -- mentions women in less than 0.01 percent of the entire text. And only two of the 283 sections addressed women's needs for family planning. Of the seven priority areas of discussion at the summit, none included language endorsing the idea that access to contraception is a basic human right. In fact, language to that effect was specifically removed from earlier drafts of Earth Summit recommendations, primarily at the insistence of the Vatican, which interprets endorsement of reproductive "rights" as endorsement of abortion.
This did not sit well with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State who led America's official summit delegation. "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," she said.
Peggy Clark, the executive vice president for policy programs at the Aspen Institute, concurred. Removing references to reproductive health from the outcome document was "an unacceptable step backward that erases decades of global commitments," she said. "The ability to choose the number, spacing and timing of children is not a luxury. It is a basic human right, one that has already been affirmed by the world community at the Cairo and Beijing conferences."
Dr. Carmen Barroso, Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Division, pointed out that there is "no recognition [in the outcome document] of the intersection between population dynamics, reproductive health and rights and sustainable development."
"Overall, it was disheartening to say the least to see the lack of recognition of women's sexual and reproductive rights and the critical role women's equality plays in ensuring sustainable development," she said. "It bears repeating time and time again that as long as women don't have sustainable lives, there will not be, and cannot be, global sustainability."
Nevertheless, activists who left Rio seem more determined than ever to secure reproductive rights for all women and to draw a bright line between voluntary contraception and sustainability.
"We will keep organizing well beyond the confines of this conference. There are tens of thousands of us! Collectively we can make a lot of noise, change minds and policy. It's kind of like our version of 'occupy.' We're going to occupy Rio beyond 20," declared Musimbi Kanyoro, CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women.