Beyond 8 billion: Focus on women, not population, for reproductive and climate justice

By Kristen P. Patterson, Director, Drawdown Lift, Project Drawdown | November 14, 2022

Humanity is projected to cross a major threshold tomorrow: We are now 8 billion people on planet Earth. Headlines will proclaim that all is lost, that there are simply too many of us (or too many of us in certain countries), and that we need fewer people. Such articles miss the mark.

We need to turn away from dramatic headlines about the number of people on the planet and instead focus on the actual issue driving the continued rise of humans on Earth—a lack of rights, for women and girls in particular. And, we need to focus on ensuring that the people who are here—specifically those living in high income countries and people with economic privilege in all countries—consume less.

Just as we are not going to solve the climate crisis without fully and equitably addressing the three pillars of mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage, we also are not going to eradicate poverty or sustain humanity without advancing rights around three pillars for women everywhere: Bodily autonomy, education, and gender equality.

Women have a right to bodily autonomy, throughout their lives. Every single woman, in every single country, full stop. Rural women, urban women. Women in the United States and women in Niger, Pakistan, and Tanzania.

In low- and middle-income countries, a lack of reproductive and bodily autonomy often impacts girls’ ability to start and stay in school. In fact, households where no woman who has at least six years of education make up nearly two-thirds of people experiencing multidimensional poverty globally. Quality education has positive ramifications throughout life for girls and women: For example, the relationship between mothers’ schooling and child survival is linear, with no threshold. Educated women are also better able to translate their fertility preferences into practice with the use of contraception.

How many delegates at COP27 are aware that millions of women in low- and middle-income countries around the world—around 218 million women of reproductive age, as of 2019—do not want to become pregnant, but are not using a modern method of contraception? As the United Nations Population Fund powerfully spelled out in its 2022 State of the World Population report, there are 121 million unintended pregnancies every year “in the bodies of women who did not choose pregnancy or motherhood, who were not planning to have a child at that time, with that partner, in those circumstances.” All women should be able to exercise the essential right of being able to decide whether and when to become a parent, and to achieve their desired family size.

A pervasive lack of gender equality—in the home, at work, and throughout society—cuts across countries. The photo of world leaders—nearly all male—at the start of COP27 last week speaks for itself. Yes, we are making progress, and yet we can and must do more. We must do more especially for women whose voices we are not yet hearing because they are, for example, among the 600 million people who still do not yet have access to electricity on the African continent, with concomitant impacts on education, livelihoods, and health. Or the girls whose school days are cut short because they were born into households without clean cooking, and their daily chores include time-consuming tasks like gathering biomass fuel for their mothers to prepare family meals. Or the girls who are affected by climate-magnified droughts and floods, which increases the time they spend gathering water, fuel, or other natural resources for their families, and leads to extended school closures. For women and girls experiencing poverty in low- and middle-income countries, climate solutions focused on accessible, renewable energy and clean cooking are key parts of advancing gender equality.

Gender is today’s COP27 theme as the second week of the conference kicks off. We need to keep rights for women’s bodily autonomy, education, and gender equality in the center of climate conversations, including any dialogues that mention population. The reality is that we need women’s ideas, leadership, and drive for creative collaboration to make the leaps forward we desperately need to address and solve the climate crisis. Let’s turn away from headlines about population and turn toward centering rights. As Wangari Maathai said, “There comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness…that time is now.”

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