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3 Reasons Why Embracing Women’s Rights Helps Achieve Sustainability

Missie Thurston Jun 11, 2020

At first glance, gender equality and environmental sustainability might appear to be separate, but equal, issues. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that these two issues are interlocked.

In order to achieve the kind of large-scale change necessary to avoid the worst climate change projections and create a more equitable world, we need all hands on deck to fully empower women worldwide. Women stand on the front lines of climate change, their access to education and positions of power can lead to innovation, and their decisions on issues like family size significantly impact the planet.

1. Women are in an Ideal Position to Implement Sustainable Practices

Common gender roles for women in many countries uniquely position them to contribute toward sustainable solutions. Women often collect many of the resources for the family. For example, women are typically the ones gathering fuel for their households in developing countries, which means they could be the ones to initiate a transition to sustainable energy if they were empowered to do so.

Women are responsible for water collection in 80% of households without on-site water access. When climate change or pollution eliminates a water source, those women and girls are then forced to seek out alternative sources, which are likely even further away from their homes. These women, more than men, understand the ways in which water sources are being impacted and experience very significant repercussions of the changes. This all contributes to women being highly motivated to make changes or support efforts that protect clean, reliable water sources.

In addition to communal water sources, many rural women also rely on forests and other natural resources to provide solid fuel for their households, but these forests are being negatively impacted by climate change and industrialization. Women and children are also more likely to be affected by the increase in natural disasters caused by climate change, considering they are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men.  

2. Gender Equity in the Classroom and Workforce Can Lead to Delayed Fertility and Increased Innovation 

Increasing and encouraging education among women and girls can have a number of positive ripple effects, including delayed fertility, healthier children, and an increase in workforce participation. And while female access to education has increased over the years, the gender gap remains. 

According to the UNESCO 2019 Gender Report, one out of every three countries around the world have not yet achieved gender parity in primary education, while half of countries have not achieved gender parity in lower secondary education, and three out of every four countries have yet to achieve gender parity in upper secondary education. There are a variety of reasons for this gender gap, many of which relate to social norms and attitudes about a woman’s role in society. If communities are able to combat these harmful stereotypes and encourage equal access to education, girls will be in a better position to dream beyond their gender role and help build a more sustainable future. 

Empowering women to take on more prominent economic, social, and political roles adds a greater diversity of voices to important discussions about sustainable initiatives. For example, when women were granted more power at the local level in India, they secured increased public provisions of water and sanitation, two issues the women dealt with on a daily basis.  

Gender inequality in the scientific community can also impact sustainability. Women make up only 28.8% of researchers worldwide. Imagine the number of innovations and climate solutions that could result if we increase that number to 50%.

3. Women With Agency Increase Sustainable Decision-Making 

Women with the ability to make their own decisions are able to choose sustainable options that perpetuate their personal agency and support themselves and their families in the long term. This agency can expand beyond directly impacting land use and food access to empower women in other areas, such as decision-making about family size. According to UN Women, only 52% of women in a marriage or union freely make their own decisions about sex, contraceptive use, and health care. 

This is astonishing, and harmful to women and their children, but this is also important because the world’s population is gaining more than 9,000 people per hour. Every woman, man, and child deserve clean air, safe water, space to live and play, and numerous other natural resources, but the planet’s resources are finite. A primary driver of this rapid population growth is the fact that many women have little to no say if or when they have children. A lack of female agency can create situations in which males dominate the decisions around sex, marriage, and childbearing, which in some cases contributes to a prevalence of teenage pregnancy, child marriage, and rape culture.

At Population Media Center (PMC), we know from our work in more than 50 countries around the world that providing women with vital information and empowering them to make decisions has numerous positive results for the quality of their own lives and for the health and well-being of their families and communities, and the Earth. Our radio show Agashi (“Hey! Look Again!”) reached more than two million Burundians for just $0.74 US per loyal listener. 

The show’s episodes featured characters who dealt with complex issues including family planning, contraception use, and gender equity. These messages effectively reached the target audience and increased the agency of women across Burundi in many ways, including:

One of the largest barriers to female empowerment in many countries is the cultural norm that places women below men and deprives them of the agency to make important decisions. Through the success of programs like Agashi, we have shown that increasing the agency of women, combatting deeply ingrained cultural norms, and highlighting the benefits of smaller families can help curb the wildly unsustainable population growth the world is currently experiencing.  

Read more about how Agashi reached more than two million Burundians and increased knowledge about sexual and reproductive health across the country in our case study.