Decades ago, when I was a carefree teenager in my Caribbean homeland, Trinidad and Tobago, I went with my Catholic youth group to talk to people in my community about their needs. I was surprised when we met an articulate, educated young woman, the wife of a local mechanic, who at maybe 17 years old was already in her third pregnancy.
I think of women in the Caribbean and elsewhere – like my mother – who bear the primary responsibility for childrearing; family planning services not only save their lives, but also help empower them to take control of their lives.
She told me that she wished she could have fewer children. "What about family planning?" I asked, without thinking about my church sponsors. It was a concept she had never thought or known much about, but we both saw immediately that access to family planning could have changed her life. It was a moment of discovery – like going to the Caribbean Sea for the first time, sticking your head underwater, and finding a whole new world. I knew from that moment on that I would work together with others, like this young woman, to inform and engage our generation around development and empowerment options, like family planning, that could help us improve our lives.
More than 222 million women worldwide want to avoid or delay childbearing but are not using voluntary family planning information and services. Without it, they have a higher risk of becoming one of the 800 women who die every day in pregnancy or childbirth. I think of women in the Caribbean and elsewhere – like my mother – who bear the primary responsibility for childrearing; family planning services not only save their lives, but also help empower them to take control of their lives.
About five years ago, when I worked with Population Action International, I met another woman who reinforced my certainty. An exceptional farmer in a very dry area of Ethiopia, she was a role model for sustainable agriculture. When we met, I was astonished to find that this thirty-something farmer had 11 children.
"Oh, you have to understand—they're not all mine," she said. "I adopted one of them." She said she would have had three or four more, like many women in Ethiopia, except that now she had access to family planning. "When we decided to use these services I found time to invest in learning how to take better care of my cattle," she said. "I got training from the agricultural extension and the health workers. I've found my way now."
Now, she tells village girls they can choose when to have children and when to invest in themselves, their education, and their families' economic well-being. She knows about greenhouse gas emissions and farming techniques that conserve water and soil fertility. She understands that education, health care, environmental concerns and economic growth are all part of the same fabric, knit together by healthy women.
My teenage sons have now reached the age at which these stories resonate with their lives. When one of them first asked me to drive him to the pharmacy to pick up contraceptives, I was surprised—like all parents—to find that my babies had grown up. But he was matter-of-fact about it; he talks about responsible sexuality with his friends and, as young men, they are making responsible choices for themselves, as I always hoped they would.
My colleagues at the Woodrow Wilson Center have produced a short film about Tanzania called Healthy People, Healthy Environment to prompt discussions on the interrelationship of reproductive health care, natural resources management, and conservation. Similar films are in the works for Nepal and Ethiopia, and we're showing them to students, thought leaders and policy-makers working on sustainable development.
We are all responsible for the health of the planet, and reproductive health care for women is a critical first step. In the communities where the impact of climate change is already evident – increased droughts and floods, new pests and vanishing birds, empty fishing grounds and drying lakes – women know that fewer children will enable them to give each child more resources, better health care, and longer schooling.
In the Philippines, my Pinoy colleagues tell me that providing family planning makes sense and cents – it's a practical health necessity and it's a great investment, returning more than $4 in saved social and health care costs for every $1 invested. What better way to spend one's life?
Standing in the hot sun in front of a mud-hut primary school a few years ago, an Ethiopian teacher told me her environmental education class was studying ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions at home. If such discussions are happening in mud huts in Ethiopia, in communities in the Philippines, and in my living room in the United States, a world of options might be opening for us all.
Roger-Mark De Souza is a recognized analyst, author, and speaker on reproductive health; population, health and environment linkages; sustainable development; environmental security; and livelihoods. He directs the Environmental Change & Security Program and the Global Health Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.