Opinion by By Jill Sheffield and Danielle Nierenberg

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Last week, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development drew global leaders to Rio de Janeiro to discuss how to ‘green’ the economy and reduce poverty around the world. The aim was to develop global goals to meet South America’s and our world’s current needs – for food, health, energy, housing and other necessities – while also preserving the environment.

For many months, conference leaders focused lead-up discussions on issues including carbon emissions, clean water, and agricultural productivity, among others. However, paradoxically, there was little attention to a core issue in planning and implementing sustainability: ensuring women’s equal access to resources and services, including reproductive health.

As the world population passes 7 billion, and South America’s population nears 400 million, increased access to reproductive health and voluntary family planning is vital. Nearly 215 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception. Research shows that if we were to meet women’s needs to plan the number and spacing of their pregnancies, population growth would slow and global carbon emissions would decrease by between 8 and 15 percent – the equivalent of stopping all deforestation today.

The human toll of the unmet need for contraception is staggering. The World Health Organization estimates that in every day, 16 million young girls become mothers. In 2008, for example, Bolivia had a 20.2 percent rate of unmet need for contraception. In South America as a whole, six in 10 pregnancies in 2008 were unintended.

Women are also critical in agriculture and food security efforts. Women farmers make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, and family farms supply the majority of food that the people of South America eat. Estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization show that if women had equal access to resources, such as land, training, technology, and credit, food production would increase by 20 to 30 percent, which could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent.

This extensive and intimate relationship with the land means that women, often exclusively, have extensive knowledge of traditional remedies and plants, indigenous farming practices and local methods of crop cultivation. Agriculture development policies and programs should be inclusive of women to meet local needs.

Investing in women’s education furthers economic goals and improves the health and wellbeing of future generations. According to the World Bank, a one-year increase in education of all adult women in a country corresponds to an increase of US$700 in GDP per capita. Educated women tend to marry later and have fewer children. Their own children, in turn, tend to have lower infant mortality rates, higher school enrollment, and suffer less from malnutrition.

At the conclusion of last week’s summit, leaders and civil society members committed US$513 billion in funding sustainable development projects, including empowering 5,000 women entrepreneurs in green economy businesses in Africa. But real and lasting development requires that national leaders support universal access to financial resources, health services, and education. Doing so will benefit women’s families, communities and nations today, and the environment and global economies tomorrow. Recognizing the important role women play as environmental stewards, food producers, business owners, health care providers, and mothers is the key to creating a prosperous and sustainable future for everyone.

Jill Sheffield is President of Women Deliver (www.womendeliver.org); Danielle Nierenberg is project director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project (www.NourishingthePlanet.org).


  1. Let me summarize this article: (1) more women should be farmers; (2) all farms should be small; (3) all farms should have “extensive knowledge of traditional remedies and plants, indigenous farming practices and local methods of crop cultivation.” If we do this, the worldwide production of food will increase.
    This is Luddite thinking: let’s throw a wooden shoe in the process of technological advances, and go back to the 5th Century (BC or AD,take your choice).
    I am astonished that theoretically intelligent people who care about feeding other people can actually believe such rubbish. Small is better, less is more, local is better than global, technology should be rejected, women are better farmers than men…etc. etc. etc.
    Ideology is defined as the triumph of belief over facts.
    I rest my case.


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