“Our planet is changing. Our population is growing. Each one of us is impacting the environment…but not equally. Each one of us will be affected…but not equally,” asserts the new documentary, Weathering Change, launched at the Wilson Center on September 22. The film, produced by Population Action International (PAI), explores the devastating impacts of climate change on the lives of women in developing countries through personal stories from Ethiopia, Nepal, and Peru. Family planning, argue the filmmakers, is part of the solution.
It will be eye-opening for those who haven’t considered the connections, said Suzanne Ehlers, president and CEO of PAI, but climate change and family planning are much more closely linked than many people expect. Ehlers was joined by Sarah Harbison, senior advisor for research and evaluation in the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at USAID; Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, an Atlas Corps fellow at PAI from Nigeria; and Tonya Rawe, senior policy advocate at CARE USA, for a panel discussion moderated by ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko following the film (full feature above).
Women’s Lives Closely Linked to the Environment
“A woman’s life is hard, and climate change is making it harder,” says one of the film’s subjects, Aregash Ayele of Ethiopia’s Gedeo Zone. Effects associated with climate change, like decreasing access to water and declining food production, often affect women more strongly than men at the household level. “[B]ecause of the erratic weather, with the rain not following seasonal patterns, the harvest has decreased and it’s affecting our livelihood,” says Ayele. “The only way we can raise our kids is from the land. If the land fails to produce, there isn’t enough to feed them.”
In Nigeria, access to water is a very big problem, acknowledged PAI’s Agbarakwe during the discussion. Without sufficient rain, women must go farther in search of water for domestic use, which may take them into insecure areas, or make them vulnerable to violence. Agbarakwe said one of her friends was raped while walking to the next village to fetch water after her own community’s well dried up. Her friend’s ordeal was not only emotionally and physically traumatizing, but it also isolated her from her community and jeopardized her future plans and dreams.
Migration is another important piece of the puzzle and a major challenge for individuals, families, and population dynamics as a whole, according to Harbison. Radhika Poudel, a woman from the Langtang Region of Nepal, describes in the film how the men in her village have left to find to work, placing all household responsibilities on the women. “I have to look after the cattle, work in the fields, and grow vegetables by myself. So obviously it’s difficult,” she says.
Family Planning: Part of an Integrated Solution
“The failure to provide women with the opportunity to space and limit their children” will further exacerbate the effects of climate change on poverty and human development, said Harbison. By providing a way for women to control the timing and number of their children, family planning gives them a way to adapt to an increasingly challenging environment, she said.
For example, USAID’s BALANCED project responds to this need by integrating population, health, and environmental interventions in a holistic approach to development, said Harbison. In the Philippines, rigorous programming that incorporated family planning and coastal resource management led to positivedemographic and conservation results. Another project, targeting communities living near national parks inZambia, provides sustainable sources of alternative income alongside reproductive health services.
“It is really very intuitive that our programs need to be integrated,” Harbison said. “Women’s lives are integrated. Their concerns are integrated. They are closely linked to the environment. It’s intuitive that this is the way we need to program.”
Women and Youth: Agents of Change
“Women are incredible agents of change – research shows that when you give a woman control of her household budget, when you put the cash in her hands, it goes back into human development, it goes back into helping her family,” said CARE’s Rawe. “But it is also a matter of not just looking at a woman and seeing her as a tool for eradicating poverty. She is a woman,” and therefore deserves human rights.
In Nigeria, young people, and particularly young girls, are frequently excluded from formal discussions about governance and adaptation related to climate change and sustainable development, said Agbarakwe. Although young people are considered to be stakeholders at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it is imperative to continue actively promoting more participation by youth and women in such official processes.
Weathering Change, which allows women on the frontlines of climate change to share their stories in their own words, will help PAI reach out to new constituencies, said Ehlers, including those working on disaster management, emergency response, and food security. A woman “doesn’t live her life in a silo,” she said, but rather “is constantly struggling across development sectors.” Weathering Change demonstrates the need to holistically address the interdependent challenges faced by women in a changing climate.
Extra vignettes that did not appear in the final version of the film can be seen on PAI's Vimeo channel.
Drafted by Theresa Polk and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker