Take it from the Cicadas: When it Comes to Sex and Sustainability, 17 Years is Long Enough to Wait

June 6, 2013

Guest blog by Kathleen Mogelgaard

Last week, while many of my colleagues were discussing emerging reproductive health and rights issues at the fascinating Women Deliver 2013 conference in Kuala Lampur, I was in rural Virginia witnessing a totally different kind of emergence and reproduction: Cicadapocalypse 2013.

As anyone who lives on the US East Coast knows, we are in the midst of a dramatic, consuming, cacophonous event that happens only once every 17 years: flying Brood II cicadas have emerged from underground for a brief and very loud search for a mate. They find each other, they lay eggs—then they die, falling silent until their offspring emerge to repeat the festivities 17 years later.

With the reproductive habits of cicadas buzzing in my brain, I watched many of the Women Deliver conference sessions happening on the other side of the globe. Health advocates, gender specialists, and policymakers shared stories about how improving the health and well-being of women is a vital to a just and sustainable world. They discussed steps that are needed to empower women and girls everywhere.

Much of the discussion centered on the 200+ million women around the world who would like to plan their pregnancies but are not using modern contraceptives, leading to unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion, heart-breaking rates of maternal and infant mortality, child-spacing that is too close for the health and well-being of children and mothers, and rapid population growth that strains limited household and natural resources.  Throughout the conference, participants called for action to close the gap in meeting the reproductive health needs of women.

Of particular interest to me, conference organizers also devoted a track of conference sessions to exploring how these issues connect to sustainability. Experts discussed issues of women and climate change; women and energy; and food security, water, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In a plenary session on Population, Sustainability, and Women’s Rights, LA Times journalist Ken Weiss shared stories from his travels. He described innovative projects he had seen around the world where women’s health workers and natural resource managers were working together. While these projects take many different forms, he said, “they have three things in common: they are rare, they are small, and they are poorly funded.”

And yet he described the successes of these programs: women living in communities near forest habitat of endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda are now able to access Depo Provera and other forms of contraception for the first time, thanks to an integrated project that improves the health of the forest and the health of communities.

Fishing families on the island of Bohol in the Philippines have development plans that include marine protection to allow overfished areas to rebound, as well as locally-available contraceptive supplies and counseling.

When these kinds of interventions are put together, the comprehensive picture of the future looks a whole lot more sustainable.

“For a long time, the women’s health and conservation communities have not trusted each other,” Weiss said. “But they have a tremendous amount in common:  They are nurturing; they plan for the future; and they work for a better world for our children and our children’s children.”

Given these realities, Weiss senses missed opportunities: “Living sustainably on this planet is not just about population and not just about consumption; it’s about both, and the science is really clear about this. What’s not clear is why the women’s health and environmental communities don’t talk to each other, not in foundation offices or out in the most remote fields. There is an opportunity to conspire together, to work together and make progress.”

The High-Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda sees similar missed opportunities. In their report to the UN Secretary General, released on Friday, they noted gaps in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that have guided many development efforts from 2000-2015: “Most seriously, the MDGs fell short by not integrating the economic, social, and environmental aspects of sustainable development as envisaged in the Millennium Declaration, and by not addressing the need to promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production. The result was that environment and development were never properly brought together. People were working hard – but often separately – on interlinked problems.”

In listening to Weiss and reading the recommendations of the HLP, I thought again about the cicadas, and about my own life when the Brood II critters were last here in 1996. At that time, there was a rising tide of environmental organizations working on population-environment connections. They joined with women’s health and rights organizations in calling for greater access to reproductive health services and contraceptives.  In 1996, I was just about to start a job at the Union of Concerned Scientists, helping scientists advocate for responsible, rights-based policies that improve the lives of women and the planet.

Like the cicadas, though, many environmental groups soon fell silent on population and women’s health (with a few notable exceptions).

But it’s been 17 years, and it is a new day.

Environmental friends, our colleagues at Women Deliver are calling out to you. Reproductive rights advocates, it’s time to welcome back your conservation colleagues with open arms. It’s time, once again, to blend our voices in the growing cacophony in support of universal access to reproductive health and family planning—for women, for families, and for a just and sustainable world.

But let’s defy the cicada-like life cycle and keep it going this time. Seventeen years is too long to wait.

Kathleen Mogelgaard is an independent consultant with more than 15 years of experience in policy analysis, advocacy, and teaching on global environmental challenges and solutions. Her writing on the links between population, family planning and the environment has appeared in Grist, New Security Beat, and RH Reality Check
Photo courtesy of Flickr user plounsbury