Issues Magazine

Family Planning: Facing the Cause and Effects of Climate Change

By Claire Maloney

Debates around solutions for climate change are often based upon reduction of greenhouse gases and other environmental measures. Marie Stopes International Australia is advocating for family planning to be considered as part of an environmental strategy to help growing communities adapt to climate change.

As the world’s population climbs to well over 6.5 billion people there has been a lot of discussion in the media in Australia, and around the globe, about the challenges that these growing populations will face in the future. Some of the fastest-growing populations are living in developing countries, and there are many effects that rapid population growth will have on these communities. Food and water shortages, impoverished living conditions, soil erosion, deforestation and lack of appropriate shelter are all negative outcomes of growing and unsustainable populations.

Fast-growing populations also experience a range of health-related effects on their quality of life. Existing healthcare providers, local hospitals and medical services in developing countries often struggle to cope with the demand that local communities place on them. As the environmental effects of growing populations continue to climb, so will the effect this has on healthcare needs, with malnutrition, starvation and water-borne illnesses increasing.

These developing populations are growing quickly due to a number of factors. Fertility rates in many developing countries are very high, being some two-and-a-half times higher than Australia’s fertility rate. In Niger in Africa, a woman will have an average of seven children in a lifetime and in Timor-Leste, one of Australia’s closest neighbouring countries, a woman will have an average of six children in her lifetime. These fertility rates are even higher in rural, regional and remote areas.

The largest contributing factor to high fertility rates and population growth is lack of access to family planning and contraceptives. It is estimated that around the world there are over 215 million women who want to use contraceptives but cannot access them. These women want to control their fertility but cannot. Many women cannot access contraceptives because of affordability, lack of gender equality, geographical barriers or simply because they do not have any information on family planning or know that it even exists.

Marie Stopes International Australia believes that having access to contraceptives and family planning is a basic human right – the right to decide the number and spacing of your children. Providing communities with meaningful family planning, contraceptive choices and quality sexual healthcare would undoubtedly have an impact upon population growth simply by ensuring their basic and unrestricted right to reproductive freedom and choice.

From our work alone, we know that if you give women the right to decide how many children they will have, there is a trend to have smaller families. Addressing this lack of access to contraceptives is at the heart of our work, and last year alone we provided vital family planning services to over 589,000 people, distributed some 6.5 million condoms and a range of other long-term contraceptives which had the impact of preventing nearly 917,000 unintended pregnancies.

The United Nations Population Fund’s State of World Population 2009 report (see p.37) focused specifically on population, women and climate change. Entitled “Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate”, the report stated: “Family planning, reproductive health care and gender relations could influence the future course of climate change and affect how humanity adapts to rising seas, worsening storms and severe droughts”.

What the report is alluding to is the impact that spiralling population growth will have on how those populations are able to respond and adapt to climate change. Moreover, the perspective of the world’s least developed countries, which are likely to be most affected by climate change, is focused on how they will cope with the drastic effects that climate change is likely to have on them. A Marie Stopes analysis of the strategy documents submitted by 40 of the world’s least developed countries to the Global Environmental Facility found that 93% of the countries identified concern about the impact of rapid population growth upon their ability to adapt to climate change.

There is also significant global debate that growing populations could be affect the environment and climate change. Traditionally, climate change has been understood in terms of greenhouse gases and weather phenomena. Many governments and not-for-profit organisations base their climate change programs on preventing or trying to reduce the impact that climate change will have environmentally on developing communities. Whilst debates around responsibilities towards a climate change solution involving a reduction of carbon emissions will and should always be present, a shift in thinking about how we can support communities and, specifically, how family planning might support communities to adapt to climate change is both necessary and significant.

Marie Stopes International Australia therefore advocates for increased support for rights-based family planning services as an important complementary measure to climate change adaptation programs in developing countries. As a result there have been calls for voluntary access to family planning to be included within climate change strategies.

Family planning can dramatically influence the ability of individuals and communities to adapt to the consequences of climate change. For example, at a basic level, smaller families experiencing climate migration are less likely to suffer financial hardship and to successfully relocate with less difficulty. On another level, women and their partners who are able to make choices and decisions about the number and spacing of their children, and who are able to determine their own fertility, are more likely to be empowered to contribute to community decision-making about adaptation plans for the consequences of climate change, and to participate in the solutions.

Marie Stopes continues to actively advocate and educate the Australian and International aid and development community on the importance of family planning and contraceptive access as part of the solution.