Although the issues of equal rights and environmental sustainability may appear distinct, they are actually closely related. In fact, a direct connection exists between greater equality for women and girls and our overall progress toward a more sustainable planet.
Exploring the Connection
Equal rights advocates have long understood the connection between equal rights for women and girls and environmental sustainability. It’s why at Population Media Center (PMC) we define our vision as “a sustainable planet with equal rights for all.”
Plenty of other organizations also link the two issues. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which guide governments around the world, aim to create a “better and more sustainable future for all.” These 17 goals do not exist in silos; they are all interconnected because each related issue has far-reaching effects on the others. One of the Sustainable Development Goals is to “empower women and girls and ensure their equal rights.”
In the same vein, the Beijing Platform for Action, an initiative started in 1995, explains that “equality between women and men is a ... fundamental prerequisite for equality, development and peace. A transformed partnership based on equality between women and men is a condition for people-centred sustainable development. A sustained and long-term commitment is essential, so that women and men can work together for themselves, for their children, and for society to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
In short, not only do women and girls of all ages have a right to live with dignity, free of cultural oppression — but achievement of their equal rights is essential to the continued success of humanity as we confront modern challenges such as sustainability and climate change.
The Impact of Empowering Women and Girls
Discrimination causes ripple effects throughout an individual’s life, her community, and society as a whole. Women and girls experience discrimination in a variety of ways, including:
- Gender-based violence
- Economic discrimation
- Reproductive health inequities
- Harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage
These obstacles limit equal access to education, employment, healthcare, economic achievement, and governmental representation.
Although equal rights advocates have made progress in certain areas—for example, the prevalence of child marriage and female genital mutilation has declined significantly—these and other discriminatory practices are still having a profound impact on women and girls around the world.
While the persistence of inequality can seem daunting, it’s important to think about the value of progress. Every individual woman or girl who has been spared, who has lived her life with dignity and self-respect and the agency to make her own decisions has made contributions to her family, community, and the world. And as if that wasn’t powerful enough: Every inch of progress we make toward equality also has a positive impact on environmental sustainability..
But how, specifically? Empowering women and girls impacts our planet’s sustainability in two important ways:
- It improves the overall health and success of society.
- It slows population growth.
Let’s explore each of these positive results and how they aid sustainability.
Improving society’s overall health and success
When women and girls can freely access the equal rights mentioned above—education, employment, economic achievement, and representation in government—they are able to fully participate in their communities. When women and girls enjoy equal social status with men and boys, the world benefits from the participation and voices of everyone. But when women and girls are silenced, oppressed, or abandoned, society misses out on the creativity, brilliance, and compassion of half of humanity.
This point is highlighted by Project Drawdown, which seeks to help the world reach “drawdown,” the point at which levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begin to decline. According to Project Drawdown, educated girls:
- Earn more money, which benefits the economy
- Have more productive farms and better-nourished families
- Are less likely to contract HIV/AIDS and malaria, which lessens the strain on the healthcare system and improves their life expectancy
- Are more resilient in the face of natural disasters and extreme weather events
These traits not only improve the life of the individual; they also bolster their communities and help local economies become more sustainable. Women are creative, resourceful, and thoughtful.
Slowing population growth
Empowered women and girls make family planning decisions that generally lead to smaller family sizes, which benefits them, their communities, and the planet as a whole. Consider that globally, only 52% of women are able to make their own decisions regarding sex, contraceptive use, and healthcare. This limited freedom contributes significantly to high fertility rates and population growth, further imperiling our planet’s sustainability.
It is painfully obvious that the planet cannot support our current growth rate. Humanity grows by more than 220,000 people every day. That is 9,000 more people every hour, or 150 per minute.
We expect the Earth to automatically accommodate these fellow people, as well as the rest of us, with land, food, shelter, and other resources. But in reality, we live with finite resources. We are already asking too much of the Earth, as demonstrated by the harsh environmental realities we see every day, including:
- Accelerating global extinction rates
- Destroyed habitats
- Altered chemistry of the air and oceans
- Rapidly changing climate
- Toxification and pollution of the environment
We can accelerate progress towards sustainability by empowering women and girls to make their own reproductive decisions, which will help end population growth sooner than otherwise expected. According to Project Drawdown, an incredible 225 million women in lower-income countries say they want to be able to choose when and whether to have children, but are not using modern contraception. We must equip them with the information, resources, and agency they need.
Raising the Status of Women and Girls
How do we raise the status of women and girls in order to improve sustainability? At PMC, we find it helpful to examine such a large, systemic problem using the “theory of change” methodology. With this approach, you lock in your destination first, then work backward to determine the most logical and effective solutions. The theory of change is a roadmap that many nonprofit, governmental, and philanthropic organizations use to guide their work.
If the ultimate goal is to improve our planet’s sustainability, empowering women and girls is one of the most effective steps on the road toward achieving it. In order to empower women and girls, we have worked our way backward on the roadmap to pin down several important solutions, as identified by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). These key aspects of empowerment are central to improving the status of women and girls:
Reproductive rights and health
In order to achieve empowerment and equality, a woman must be able to control her own fertility. If she can plan when to have children and how many to have, she can plan the rest of her life and is able to participate more fully in society. A woman’s reproductive health is also an important factor. Due to both biological differences and societal challenges, women are more likely than men to experience reproductive health issues. In fact, problems during pregnancy or childbirth are the second-leading cause of death for women of childbearing age. Therefore, a fundamental element of equal rights is providing women with the resources required to safeguard their own reproductive health.
Sixty percent of the world’s poorest people are women. Overall, women are more likely to struggle economically for two reasons: First, because they are typically responsible for more of the unpaid work required by their families and communities, such as childcare and household duties. Second, because women are discriminated against in the economic sphere.
A lack of access to education has ripple effects throughout a woman’s life and the life of her children. Worldwide, 130 million girls cannot get an education. As a result, about two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women, which severely limits their opportunities in life. Increasing access to education has been shown to improve the lives of individual women and those of future generations, in part by contributing to lower infant mortality and fertility rates.
With a challenge as widespread and systemic as gender inequality, it’s going to take a change in power structure to shift the dynamic. It is vital to have the backing and enforcement of institutions to help encourage change -- and that requires women be in lead roles. Unfortunately, many social and legal institutions fail to guarantee women equality in these important areas:
- Basic legal and human rights
- Access to and control of resources
- Employment or earnings
- Social or political participation
For example, most countries do not adequately enforce laws against domestic violence. This and other similar stats are not surprising when victims are predominantly women and men continue to wield the majority of political and legal authority. Only 22% of parliamentary positions are occupied by women worldwide. These types of obstacles keep women and girls from achieving their full potential.
Make an Impact
Women and girls of all ages have a right to live with dignity, free of oppression. Equal rights activists everywhere should support improving the status of women and girls as a non-negotiable ethical imperative—not only to encourage the development of individuals but also to positively impact the overall health of our planet.
PMC works to empower women and girls around the globe. Our TV and radio shows encourage positive behaviors and beliefs around the interconnected themes of the rights of women and girls, population stabilization, and environmental protections.
You can help us get closer to our mission of a sustainable planet with equal rights for all. Find out how you can take action today.