People don’t often think of gender issues when they think of the environment, but in fact sustainable development in many of the world’s most bio-diverse regions has a lot to do with women’s health and well-being.

At this year’s World Conservation Congress, where the theme was improving the inherent resilience of nature, ECSP’s Sandeep Bathala presented alongside Blue Ventures’ Gildas Andriamalala about the connections between women’s health and the environment – specifically on the potential of population, health, and environment (PHE) approaches as an effective sustainable development strategy.

Concerned About the Environment? Population Matters

Many of the places around the world that are the most ecologically diverse are also experiencing the most population pressure, said Bathala.

The majority of the 34 global “biodiversity hotspots” hotspots identified by Conservation International, are located in developing countries. Population growth rates in these areas between 1995 and 2000 were higher than those of the world overall and higher than the overall rate in developing countries too (1.8 percent versus 1.3 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively).

Almost one-third of the population in less developed countries is under the age of 15, where that same cohort only accounts for 16 percent of the population in developed countries. According to Bathala, these youthful age structures are mainly due to lack of access to voluntary family planning services for millions of women.

Gildas Andriamalala spoke about his experience at Blue Ventures working in the biodiversity hotspot of Madagascar.

Southwest Madagascar is home to one of the Indian Ocean’s largest reef systems. Local communities, like the Vezo people, rely on the sea for food, trade, income, and transportation. A growing population increases demand for natural resources, said Andriamalala. Therefore, a key component of Blue Ventures’ approach is providing voluntary family planning services to stem overuse of local natural resources and to advance human rights and social equity.

The London-based non-government organization began field operations in the village of Andavadoaka in 2003. More than half of the village’s population of 1,200 is under the age of 15. Because of high child mortality rates (94 out of every 1,000 children die before the age of five) and lack of access to family planning services, the average woman has more than six children.

At this rate, Andavadoaka’s population was expected to double in 10 to 15 years. But since Blue Ventures began working there, the rate of contraception use has gone from 10 percent to 35 percent. Andriamalala said that in the more than four years of the program’s existence, 589 unwanted pregnancies have been prevented, reducing the region’s projected population by 5.5 percent.

Since women and girls are the primary resource managers in many developing countries, responsible for gathering water, food, firewood, and other necessities for their families, empowering them has follow-on benefits, besides being able to plan their families, said Bathala.

Empowerment allows women to manage their own economic resources (making it more likely that household income is invested in children); makes them more resilient to natural resource shocks and disasters which they are disproportionately affected by; and helps conserve natural resources (since women are more likely to be aware of and engage in environmental protection).

Demographic trends have important connections to climate change as well. Currently, population growth is often viewed as a challenge to addressing climate change-related vulnerabilities, but both Bathala and Andriamalala agreed that improving access to voluntary family planning services can be a way to mitigate some of the most damaging effects of climate change.

Population Action International’s interactive mapping website shows high levels of unmet need for family planning and rapid population growth rates are common in countries with low levels of resilience to climate change and high levels of projected decline in agricultural production. Improving reproductive health services in these places can be one element of a multi-pronged strategy to reduce women’s vulnerability, lower future carbon emissions, reduce future malnutrition, and lessen demands on agricultural growth.

Concerned About Health? The Environment Matters  

Water is a clear example of the connection between human health and the environment, said Bathala. The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that more than 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Progress to improve these trends has been slow. Between 1990 and 2004, the number of people without safe drinking water declined by only 118 million.

According to Bathala, there is a significant overlap between places with poor sanitation, population pressure, and biodiversity hotspots. If each of these factors isn’t considered in development efforts, projects are doomed to fail.

In addition to reproductive health services, Blue Ventures’ promotes hygiene and sanitation through a combination of village outreach tours, youth clubs, radio programs, and training for 15 community agents to help spread the message. So far, Andriamalala said they’ve built 912 hand-washing units and distributed 500 bars of soap, 425 sets of toothpaste and brushes, over 700 bottles of water treatment solution, and 550 packets of diarrhoea treatment.

Blue Ventures is also working on a “community-led total sanitation” campaign to stop open defecation. According to Andriamalala, the pilot campaign in Andavadoaka attracted 23 community leaders who joined them for three days of training, community mapping, and discussion.

Concerned About Population? Health Matters

Healthcare access has an obvious connection to life expectancy and quality of life, but it is also the primary driver of rapid population growth in the areas of the world where it still occurs.

Research shows that when given the choice and ability, women tend to have smaller families, and more than 222 million women around the world have unmet need for family planning. Blue Ventures’ Safidyprogram (meaning “to choose”) empowers families to choose the number of children they want and when they want them. Even in the small villages of Madagascar, a high demand for family planning services exists. On opening day of the first clinic in Andavadoaka, 60 women (out of the village’s total population of 1,200) sought contraception.

Safidy aims to also reduce maternal and child mortality and prevent sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, said Andriamalala. It offers a multitude of birth control options through community-based distributors, and follow-on benefits include improved maternal and infant health and expanded opportunities for women’s education, employment, and social participation. Ninety-seven percent of people in the community also now know that sexually transmitted infections are a risk of unprotected sex.

Merits of Integration

Population, health, and environment are so closely intertwined along many of the world’s last wilderness frontiers that it makes sense to use an integrated approach. Voluntary family planning fills an existing demand, empowers women, and lowers the population growth rate, which then reduces strain on the environment and produces healthier ecosystems. Healthier ecosystems lead to healthier families because of less pollution and better food security. In this way, an integrated approach can lead to more sustainable development in the most fragile places.

By providing services that the community really wants, Blue Ventures has also been able to gain support for its other programs, like marine conservation and aquaculture.

The added value that’s gained by bringing PHE components together is better buy-in from communities (because you address many of their needs, instead of just a few) and cost-effectiveness through savings in service delivery, said Bathala.

It’s also the “right” thing to do, Bathala said.

Empowering women is a human rights issue and combining efforts to help them in developing countries while also utilizing the environment in a sustainable way can take us a long way towards realizing larger development goals, she finished.

Sources: Blue Ventures, Conservation International, Council on Foreign Relations, IUCN World Conservation Congress, Population Action International, Population Reference Bureau, UN Environment Programme, World Health Organization.

Photo Credit: “Awards,” courtesy of flickr user IUCNweb.