‘It’s Not Safe’: Women Fleeing Climate-Related Crises Demand Better Access to Contraception

Sexual and reproductive health rights go ignored in most countries’ adaptation plans for a changing climate.
​Women attend an event hosted by  MSI Reproductive Choices.
Women attend an event hosted by 

MSI Reproductive Choices. Photo: MSI Reproductive Choices

Campaigners are demanding that world leaders at COP26 work harder for women who lose access to their reproductive and sexual health rights when the climate crisis affects where they live.

“To date, no country can claim to be doing enough to plug that gap and tackle the unmet need for contraception,” Sanou Gning – the Sahel director of MSI Reproductive Choices, an NGO that delivers contraception and safe abortion services – told VICE World News. “Today, 218 million women and girls want access to contraception but can’t get it.”

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MSI Reproductive Choices are among 65 partners calling on governments and private funders to integrate sexual and reproductive healthcare into their climate financing. 

Across the region Gning directs, extreme weather events like floods and droughts have forced many families to flee their homes, disrupting access to contraceptive services and increasing the risk of unplanned pregnancy, and compounding other threats that women receive due to the climate crisis – including higher rates of child marriage, and increasing risk of sexual harassment, rape and gender-based violence. 

In the Sahel, Gning adds, “these barriers affect women’s ability to choose contraception, resulting in low contraceptive use across the region of less than 15 percent.”

Fatou, one of the women helped by MSI Reproductive Choices, was forced to move from her flood-prone, coastal-eroding town of St Louis in Senegal; this meant that she was also forced to leave her local healthcare services. 

She recalls giving birth one night and hearing the waves crashing nearby. “It’s not safe... you can even see parts of the house falling apart, and the roof is broken in two,” she told MSI Reproductive Choices.

Fatou now lives six miles away in a makeshift camp with others who have been forced to move inland away from the eroding coastline. But through MSI Reproductive Choices, she was able to receive a contraceptive implant.

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The UN’s Women and Gender Constituency says that contraception is an essential part of the sexual rights agenda and that supporting women and marginalised gender identities’ right to healthcare is about protecting them from climate change, rather than suggesting contraception could mitigate it – noting that advocating for restrictions on women’s and girls’ fertility as a means to solve social and environmental problems has “a long, racist and violent history.”

Most countries’ climate adaption plans have limited reference to sexual and reproductive rights, the body says. 

“At the most fundamental level, people need control over their bodies to respond and adapt to climate change,” Dr Heather McMullen from the Institute of Population Health Sciences at Queen Mary University of London said on a panel at COP26. “Sexual and reproductive health has not yet received the attention it deserves in climate change policy. We hear anecdotes about people who are needing to use different kinds of pesticides because of changes in weather and crops and are having impacts on their fertility, their menstruation as a result. Taking a broad view of all environmental crises is also something we need to see.”

Back in October at a meeting of experts in the area, Wendy Morton, the UK Member of Parliament and Minister for Europe and Americas at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office said: “We must ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality are not victims of the climate crisis.”

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But in recent years the UK foreign aid budget for such services has fallen.

The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organisation, found that before cuts, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office was expected to provide £218.9 million for family planning around the world. 

Instead, the institute discovered that £132.4 million of funding will reach countries in the fiscal year 2021-2022, amounting to 9.5 million fewer women and couples receiving contraceptive services, 4.3 million more unintended pregnancies, 1.4 million more unsafe abortions and 8,000 more maternal deaths.

At COP26, the UN’s Women and Gender Constituency has recommended that “robust and feminist financing” is needed for the “climate and sexual and reproductive health rights intersection.” 

A coalition of experts in the field has also asked leaders to specifically invest more in health systems and emergency preparedness and response to maintain access to services during climate disasters.

In a UK government announcement this morning, there were zero specific references to sexual and reproductive rights as they pledged £165 million “to tackle climate change while addressing the inequalities that make women and girls more vulnerable to climate change.” 

Up to £45 million is being contributed to help empower local communities and grassroots women’s groups in Asia and the Pacific, with a further £120 million being used “to build resilience, prevent pollution, protect biodiversity, strengthen renewable energy and better manage waste, while also supporting women’s leadership, access to finance, education and skills in Bangladesh.”

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“The UK Government’s  announcement of funding for local communities, grassroots women’s groups, and women’s leadership in climate action is a welcome step in the right direction,” Sophie Rigg, Senior Climate Adviser at ActionAid UK, told VICE World News. 

“However world leaders still have a long way to go. They need to realise that addressing the entwined challenges of gender equality and climate change cannot be achieved with one-off funding to Asia and the Pacific. Gender equality is not a ‘bolt-on’ – it needs to be baked into all climate financing and climate action across all continents.” 

Biplabi Shrestha, from the women’s organisation ARROW and a member of the Women & Gender Constituency says that “sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) have not been taken up seriously at the COP26.

“On gender day at #COP26 today we expect to see more conversations around the intersection of climate crises and SRHR. Sustainable development and solutions to climate crises cannot be achieved without universal access to SRHR.”