New York, NY, 3 November 2021 | Discussions around climate change and sexual and reproductive health rarely occur in the same spaces, despite ever-growing evidence showing that they should. On Oct. 19, 2021, ahead of COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, a diverse group of experts and officials from Member States, UN entities, civil society organizations, and other key stakeholders convened to raise awareness around the under-discussed yet urgent need to better integrate sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in gender responsive strategies to adapt to climate change. This high-level event was co-convened by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Family Planning 2030, Women Deliver, and the UNFCCC Women and Gender Secretariat.
The moderator, Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, Director of the Technical Division at UNFPA, who also delivered opening remarks on behalf of Assistant UN Secretary-General Diene Keita, who serves as UNFPA Deputy Executive Director for Programmes, said the intent of the event was twofold: to create a common understanding of what needs to be done from a policy and programmatic perspective to integrate SRHR into gender-responsive climate adaptation strategies, and to build an even stronger SRH, gender, and climate adaptation coalition on the road to Glasgow at COP26. She stressed that “true climate justice cannot be achieved without gender justice, and gender justice can only be achieved by meeting the SRHR needs of everyone everywhere.”
Wendy Morton, a UK Member of Parliament and Minister for Europe and Americas at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, said COP26 offers a watershed moment to address the issues. SRHR will be highlighted through the UK’s COP presidency with its strong focus on women and girls and on resilient health systems. She said that women, girls, people with disabilities, LGBTQI people, and those living with HIV and AIDS are among the hardest hit by climate change, and that most struggle to access SRHR. “We must ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality are not victims of the climate crisis,” she said. “Instead, they must flourish as part of the solution.”
Houmed M’Saidie, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment, Tourism, and Handicrafts with the Government of Comoros, discussed how the Comoros adapted its national climate plans to better involve women in decision-making and to strengthen climate adaptations related to gender. He said that climate change has a dangerous effect on health in general, and specifically on the health of girls and women. He urged large, developed countries to support climate action for smaller countries that do not significantly contribute to emissions but are nonetheless confronted with the daily effects of climate change. “We need adequate financing, and proactive financing, to put in place an adaptation plan that responds to the essential needs of our population, whose daily fight against the impact of climate change is a matter of survival,” he said.
Angela Baschieri, Regional Population Dynamics Policy Advisor at UNFPA, and Divya Mathew, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Women Deliver, discussed the latest evidence that climate change harms maternal health, creates conditions that increase gender-based violence and child marriage, and reduces access to lifesaving SRH services by disrupting them and straining the capacity of health systems. Many harms of climate change are exacerbated by intersecting factors such as age, poverty, race and ethnicity, disability, and SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics). An intersectional lens, they said, is crucial to avoid exacerbating existing socioeconomic and cultural inequalities for the most marginalized groups including women and girls.
Fleur Newman, Lead Programme Officer for the Gender and Climate Change agenda item for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, called for “finding innovative ways to communicate and explain [SRHR and gender-responsive climate adaptation strategies] beyond the gender bubble and beyond the climate bubble, to reach a broader audience of health and social protection and education experts and practitioners, civil society organizations working at community and grassroots levels, providing accessible information that experts and practitioners can use and share.”
Lorelei Goodyear, Senior Technical Adviser at FP2030, in line with the broader programmatic approach, recommended two key gender-sensitive strategies for climate adaptation: advancing emergency preparedness and response, and advancing the Minimum Initial Services Package (MISP) for SRH, standards set forth by the global community to establish clear priorities when continuity of care is disrupted in the acute phase of an emergency. “The ability of a woman or young person to make decisions about their own health and fertility is central to their ability to adapt to a changing climate,” she said. “Emergency preparedness and response for SRH is a necessary component of an integrated, gender-sensitive response that aims to enhance the resiliency of women and youth who are likely to face the most severe effects of climate change.”
Gareth Phillips, Manager of Climate and Environmental Finance at the African Development Bank, noted that it’s still rare for multilateral organizations to provide 50-50 financing for both climate mitigation and adaptation, because climate financing mechanisms — which might offer tens of millions of dollars but require a rigorous and complicated proposal process — are not well suited for small-scale adaptation projects that might be implemented by local community actors, cooperatives, farmers, or small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “I think there is an increasing realization that we need to do more to support adaptation, and then within that window of adaptation to look at SRHR … we need to think out of the box and come up with different ways of providing finance to small-scale project developers,” he said.
Sohanur Rahman, Founder of YouthNet for Climate Justice in Bangladesh, said that young people, as global and local leaders on climate change as well as SRHR champions, need support for building resilience to climate change. He also said that meaningfully engaging young people in climate policy and action is crucial to achieving just and sustainable solutions. “Our future is in your hands,” he said in a powerful message to global leaders. “So do not abandon us. Do not fail us at COP26. Promises must be delivered in Glasgow with honesty, with fairness, and accountability. Otherwise we young people will not, cannot, forgive you, because the cost of your inaction and devastation is threatening the most vulnerable. The time to act is now.”
The experts concluded that climate solutions that are truly gender-responsive must include a multipronged program of action: investing in a healthy, empowered population, including girls, women, and young people; integrating SRHR into climate-resilient health, protection, and education systems; strengthening risk reduction and emergency preparedness systems; and creating stronger data systems for assessing climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity.
They called on leaders to specifically:
- Make SRH services a core component of building health system resilience to climate change. This includes access to family planning, maternal health and safe abortion care, HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) treatment and prevention, and gender-based violence prevention and care.
- Invest in health systems to address the underlying causes of vulnerability to climate change.
- Invest in emergency preparedness and response to maintain access to SRH services during climate disasters.
- Invest in research to fill evidence gaps related to gender and other SRHR and identity vulnerabilities and integrate the analysis of SRHR and climate data.
- Understand how compounding crises and intersecting identities shape vulnerability and resilience to climate change and SRHR to ensure that climate actions not exacerbate inequalities.
- Promote gender-transformative climate action by addressing the linkages between climate change and SRHR across climate action processes. This includes in the Gender Action Plan under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Women and Gender Constituency (of the UNFCCC), the Generation Equality Action Coalitions, and through the climate National Adaptation Plans and Nationally Determined Contribution development processes.
- Set and meet targets for inclusive, gender-balanced, multisectoral stakeholder participation in climate policy and action.
Jennifer Adams, Acting Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), closed the event by emphasizing USAID’s commitment to gender responsive climate strategies, including increased and active collaboration with Indigenous people, women and girls, youths, and others who face the brunt of the climate crisis and yet have historically had limited influence over decision-making. “Acting on the links between SRHR and climate change requires collective partnership and having hard conversations — grappling with what it really means to shift power to the South, and implementing health and environmental policies and programs that provide meaningful change for people and their communities,” she said.