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Climate policies must allow women to control their bodies and their fates

‘We need to steer clear of policies that seek to control and police women’s reproductive health in the name of curbing emissions.’

(Sara Cuevas/TNH)

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Links between women’s sexual and reproductive health and the impacts of climate change are made clear in the recent Working Group II report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For the first time, the authors note the risks pregnant women face in a changing climate. They also cite increased access to reproductive health and family planning services as contributing to climate change resilience.

Though slow-moving, this is welcome progress: Conversations around global climate policy have long paid little attention to the connection between sexual and reproductive health and climate change. Policymakers often do not see such links, resulting in policies that fail to consider the realities and needs of women, girls, and other marginalised populations.

Yet there are reasons to be wary as sexual and reproductive rights gain more attention in the climate debate. We need to steer clear of policies that seek to control and police women’s reproductive health in the name of curbing emissions. 

For instance, the family planning and population control argument – that fewer people on the planet will result in fewer carbon footprints and emissions, and thus, reduced climate impacts – is an easy narrative to understand, though it’s not as effective as the argument might appear. It’s also not just. It all too often overlooks the human rights of women and girls to control their bodies and their fates.

A human-rights based approach would ensure women are involved in decision-making about policies that concern their sexual and reproductive health. It would mean letting women decide what policies will best meet their needs.

Discussions around population control unjustly place the responsibility to mitigate and adapt to a changing planet on women – particularly those in Africa and Asia, where the population control argument is so often focused. They let the primary polluters – rich countries – off the hook. And they set us on a path that ultimately fosters gender and racial inequality.

It’s time to try a human rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive rights. This is an understudied and underfunded climate change adaptation and resilience mechanism that governments and aid organisations urgently need to include in climate, environmental, and disaster response plans. A human-rights based approach would ensure women are involved in decision-making about policies that concern their sexual and reproductive health. It would mean letting women decide what policies will best meet their needs.

With UN figures indicating that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women, there is an urgent need to frame sexual and reproductive rights as the essential services they are and to provide women and girls the vital support they need in crisis situations. As governments move to update their health systems and their climate change commitments, they need to focus on sexual and reproductive health rights, to include more women and girls in decision-making spaces, and create the fiscal space to support this work. The UN Commission on the Status of Women, which when it met last month focused for the first time on gender and climate change as its key theme, and the COP27 climate conference in November, offer global moments to do just that. 

Throughout my career, I have seen how the impacts of climate change affect women’s health, particularly sexual and reproductive health. I’ve also seen how unprepared we are to address these issues. In my home country, Nigeria, I’ve watched as girls and women struggled to access sexual and reproductive health services, both in times of crisis and of peace. When environmental disasters strike, I’ve seen how few – if any – provisions are in place for women’s reproductive health programmes.

In northeastern Nigeria, many people have been displaced by conflict arising from diminishing natural resources, including food, water, and land. A shrinking water supply, due to human activities, has led to a loss of livelihoods and homes. Climate change is one of several culprits at play. According to the International Organization for Migration, 53 percent of those living in camps for internally displaced people in the northeast are women. There, sexual and reproductive rights are often neglected, and women and girls lack access to reproductive health services, face a higher risk of gender-based violence and forced sex work, and are denied quality neonatal and reproductive healthcare

Although the government and international NGOs provide aid to meet basic needs like food and shelter, sexual and reproductive health is rarely considered such a necessity. A woman’s pregnancy or period does not stop because of displacement or war, but few, if any, aid groups prioritise sexual and reproductive health.

To practice a truly human-rights based, climate-conscious approach toward women’s sexual and reproductive health, governments and international development organisations must also meaningfully engage women and youth in decision-making. 

Let’s create policies that move away from policing women’s bodies and autonomy and toward promoting non-coercive, consent-based care.

I’ve seen that even well-intentioned interventions fail when assumptions are made about women and girls’ needs rather than consulting them directly. This results in superficial, unsustainable projects and policies that local communities do not want to buy into – leaving us right back where we started. And, we waste precious resources. A participatory approach can help avoid these pitfalls and ensure that communities, as well as women and girls, benefit in the long term.

As sexual and reproductive rights gain more conceptual ground in climate policy, this thinking must be backed by resources that allow concrete action. Without financing specifically for and commitments to women’s sexual and reproductive rights, the topic will continue to be trivialised by both governments and the international aid community. Where specific financing commitments do already exist, proposals often centre on mega-projects that are too complex to fund local, simple, sustainable efforts. 

Not only do we need funding to support women and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights, but we need accessible funding – money that can scale up community-led initiatives. Such initiatives include efforts in Nigeria to provide menstrual services to women in camps for internally displaced persons. 

We must continue to highlight the links between women’s and girl’s sexual and reproductive health and efforts to address the impacts of climate change. But let’s create policies that move away from policing women’s bodies and autonomy and toward promoting non-coercive, consent-based care. 

Sexual and reproductive rights are crucial to allowing women and girls to fulfill their potential and contribute to their communities. They are also crucial to sustainable development and to efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change on our planet, all of our lives, and our collective futures. 

The author received editing support from Melissa Godin.

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