We know that it is poor rural communities in developing nations that face the greatest barriers to use of and access to reproductive health services, including family planning. We also know that these barriers prevent women from choosing freely when and whether to have children, threaten family health, create challenges for girls who want to complete their education, and lead to higher levels of fertility and more rapid rates of population growth. Some of us perhaps also know that these same communities often depend most directly on natural resources for their livelihoods, food, water, shelter and cultural practices. When human pressures on ecosystems intensify, both community health and environmental health suffer.
Through this, we have seen there is often an overlap of areas facing the greatest need for improved reproductive health services and for conservation efforts. That is why the Margaret Pyke Trust is leading Thriving Together: Environmental Conservation and Family Planning, an advocacy initiative which will be launched on World Population Day (11 July) aimed at achieving global policy change to integrate family planning in national environmental, climate action and other planning documents. Achieving this policy change has the potential to improve the health and lives of the most vulnerable rural populations and their surrounding environments.
Family planning contributes to women’s empowerment, improves family and general health, advances education and life opportunities and, by slowing population growth, eases pressures on wildlife and ecosystems. Sustaining functional, biodiverse environments becomes less plausible in some areas if population growth follows average UN projections. With this link clearly recognized, we have already seen some conservation and reproductive health organisations join forces which has led to increased family planning use, improved health and gender relations, and increased support for and participation in conservation. These multi-sector approaches can be more cost-effective, and generate more sustainable results.
Now, 25 years have passed since the International Conference on Population and Development during which sexual and reproductive health and rights were enshrined as human rights and where world leaders declared the strong links between gender equality and sustainable development. Indeed the Declaration was extremely forward thinking by making numerous references to “natural resources”, “integrating population issues into all development planning policies and programmes” and “environment”. Unfortunately, despite this declaration, examples of integrated policies and programming to respond to complex development challenges remain few and between.
To bridge this gap, the Trust is launching Thriving Together: Environmental Conservation and Family Planning; bringing together the family planning and environmental conservation sectors for the benefit of people and the planet. The initiative has already been endorsed by nearly 150 organizations from the conservation, family planning and global health sectors from around the world signalling the support in advocating for and implementing integrated solutions aimed at reaching the most vulnerable and hardest to reach populations.
The potential for impact of partnerships between family planning and conservation organizations has been well documented by reviews of Population, Health and Environment Programmes (PHE) that integrate family planning into conservation efforts, including sustainable livelihoods generation in South Africa and marine ecosystem conservation projects in Madagascar. These projects take place in remote, rural areas; therefore, family planning information and services are becoming more accessible to such rural communities. Conservation organizations are also partnering with family planning organizations to integrate family planning into their policy and advocacy. The Margaret Pyke Trust co-authored a policy paper with the Cheetah Conservation Fund entitled The importance of human reproductive health and rights for cheetah conservation highlighting how conserving cheetahs calls for innovative, cross-sectoral solutions promoting the sustainable co-existence of wildlife and humans. Thanks to such cross-sector policy and programming partnerships, there is growing knowledge among conservation bodies on the importance of access to reproductive health services as a fundamental right, and the direct and measurable positive impact on the health of people and local ecosystems.
David Johnson, Chief Executive of the Margaret Pyke Trust stated “integration is much talked about, but we really want to see integration happening at the policy level and in on- the -ground delivery, benefitting those facing the greatest barriers to family planning and experiencing environmental degradation.” The long-term aim is to achieve global policy change that will see family planning integrated into conservation efforts for the benefit of women, girls, their communities, and the surrounding environment.
To ensure the achievement of multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 3, 5, 11, 13 and 17 we must learn from these cross-sector, community-based, impactful approaches. They are a prime example demonstrating that when the conservation and health sectors work together, communities and their ecosystems can thrive together.