The overturning of constitutional rights to abortion by the United States Supreme Court is the latest blow in a worldwide rollback of protections for gender equality and women’s rights. It comes at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has already set global gender parity back by a generation, and the worsening effects of climate change continue to disproportionately affect women and girls, especially in those countries that are most vulnerable.
These conditions make the integration of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in climate change solutions as a way towards increasing climate resilience and improving gender equality more urgent than ever, demanding attention and resources.
With extreme weather events such as droughts and floods becoming more frequent and severe, the need to uphold these rights becomes more pressing. Yet these needs are often overlooked in the responses to, and understandings of, the gendered nature of climate change impacts.
Climate change and violence against women
Denial of these rights exacerbates gender inequality and the impacts of climate change on marginalized groups, including women and girls, which are already severe. The incidence of domestic violence increases during and after extreme weather events and the migration that climate change can trigger. Sexual violence is higher in emergency shelters and disaster-affected communities. As livelihoods are threatened by such crises and food becomes scarcer, girls are more likely to be forced into child marriage or transactional sex in exchange for gifts to their family in cash or kind.
The adverse effects of climate change can limit women’s and girls’ access to education and healthcare services. The Malala Fund estimates that climate-related events prevented 4 million girls in low and lower-middle income countries from finishing their education last year. This disrupts access to comprehensive sexuality education, which helps to ensure all people can enjoy their full bodily rights, integrity and autonomy.
Extreme events and access to sexual healthcare
Climate-related events can also disrupt the provision of, and access to, essential healthcare services. These include contraception, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/Aids, safe abortion, and maternal and neonatal healthcare. For instance, the United Nations Population Fund reported that more than 20,000 women in Mozambique risked unwanted pregnancy after Cyclone Eloise in January 2021 because access to contraception was limited.
The consequences are serious. According to a 2018 study by the International Peace Institute, limited access to sexual and reproductive health services is the leading cause of death for displaced women and girls, often in countries that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Over half of the world’s maternal deaths occur in conflict-affected and fragile states – and most of these are preventable, according to UN Women research.
Sexual health rights support resilience
Prioritizing a right to sexual and reproductive health for women and girls supports both individual and community resilience to climate impacts. Voluntary family planning enables women and people of diverse genders and sexual orientations to decide whether, when and how to have children.
With free and informed reproductive choices, women and girls may have improved access to education, supporting their ability to understand and act on climate information and emergency preparedness.
Meeting people’s expressed sexual and reproductive needs can help support sustainable livelihoods, improve their access to services and resources and participation in decision-making. A 2018 study in western Tanzania found that households that scored higher on SRHR indicators performed better on all elements of climate change resilience.
This has wider benefits: recent research in Nature Communications shows that empowering women improves a country’s ability to adapt to climate change. This approach makes central the human rights, dignity and agency of women and girls, which are too often overlooked in climate change solutions.
The inextricable links between sexual health rights and climate change resilience are increasingly recognized around the world. Diverse civil society organizations have pledged action on these rights and climate justice through the Feminist Action for Climate Justice Action Coalition, and the UN Framework on Climate Change’s Women and Gender Constituency has raised awareness at climate negotiations. At the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March, states recognized the importance of these rights to addressing climate change and unanimously agreed to ensure universal access to SRHR – marking a big step forward.
Embedding sexual health into climate change policy
However, we need to go further to integrate these rights into international climate change negotiations and national planning. The UNFCCC’s Lima work programme and its Gender Action Plan do not mention sexual and reproductive health. This needs to change.
At the Bonn climate change talks in June, countries initially proposed integrating these rights into the Gender Action Plan, but this was revoked in a later draft, as parties could not reach consensus.
A 2021 review of 19 countries’ National Adaptation Plans found that, while some considered gender issues, especially in relation to the health sector, their integration of SRHR was relatively limited. Strengthening the climate resilience of healthcare systems could improve their SRHR provision after environmental shocks. But for more effective outcomes, it is essential to take a gender-responsive approach that acknowledges sexual and reproductive health while addressing structural barriers and unequal social norms to promote gender equity.
To better integrate these rights into climate change adaptation responses, greater collaboration is needed between climate change, health, humanitarian and women’s rights organizations. This may include finding a ‘common language’ for exchanging knowledge and best practice, identifying solutions for climate-resilient healthcare systems, and effectively communicating the need for gender-responsive interventions to support SRHR to governments and other funders.
Investing in climate-resilient sexual healthcare
Investment in climate-resilient healthcare systems is lacking, and SRHR is particularly underfunded. Less than 1 per cent of climate change adaptation finance is dedicated to health systems, and approximately 5 per cent of national adaptation spending. While data on the climate finance dedicated to SRHR is limited, less than 1 per cent of international aid is dedicated to family planning.
Yet investing in SRHR yields a high return while promoting long-term environmental and societal benefits. Family planning provides $26.80 in health benefits for every $1 spent, according to the Copenhagen Consensus think tank. It saves mothers’ lives, and benefits families’ livelihoods, education and health, boosting their climate resilience. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that providing full coverage of maternal and neonatal healthcare, contraceptive services and healthcare for sexually transmitted diseases in lower-middle income countries would only cost an additional $4.80 per capita.
Mainstreaming gender has become increasingly common in climate finance – integrating SRHR concerns should be the next step in ensuring that adaptation measures support socially marginalized groups. Collaboration between disciplines can help to identify holistic solutions and effective ways to deploy finance.
For both gender equality and climate resilience, it has never been more crucial to integrate a human rights-centred approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights in climate-change planning, policy and finance.