Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health (PMNCH) is the world’s largest alliance for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health and well-being. Established in 2005 and hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO), PMNCH provides a prominent platform for its adolescent and youth constituency to amplify the voices of the 1.8 billion adolescents and young people living in the world today, whose needs are currently unmet– climate change being one of the biggest challenges.
In an exclusive interview with Smitha Verma, the Vice Chair of PMNCH’s Accountability Working Group, Sophie Arsenault, talks about why it is important to invest in women and the way forward towards building resilient communities. Since 2020, Sophie has been a member of Fos Feminista’s Board of Directors, serving on the Advocacy and Governance Committees. She is Policy and Government Relations Officer for the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health. She is currently completing her MSc in Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy and Programming at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Edited excerpts from the interview
Climate change is exacerbating the vulnerability of women and girls across the world. Increasing temperatures, climate-related disasters, food and water insecurity all directly and indirectly impact women and girls disproportionately to men given their lower socio-economic status arising from systemic gender inequality, which diminishes their ability to cope with climate change (source: OHCHR).
Climate-induced natural disasters and extreme weather events can disrupt access to essential, sexual and reproductive health services, by damaging or destroying facilities and infrastructure, interrupting medical supply chains, and reducing access to skilled birth attendants, hospitals, pregnancy care, and emergency obstetric care (UNFPA). The most discerning takeaway is that sexual and reproductive healthcare constitutes both the most prominent unmet need and the service most likely to be disrupted under conditions of resource scarcity.
Inevitably, women in low- and middle-income countries are even more at risk as they often continue to perform household chores during pregnancy (e.g. fetching wood and water, and subsistence farming) which might lead to complications linked to working beyond heat tolerance to avoid losing pay (Chersich et al, 2020).
Gender-based violence (GBV) and child marriage increase in times of stress and scarcity and following extreme weather events and disasters. When women and girls need to travel further distances to gather necessities such as water and firewood, they can also be at increased risk of physical and sexual violence (McLoed et al, 2019).
Women and girls are also more likely to be killed during natural disasters than men because they are often not taught basic survival skills, such as swimming or climbing. For example, women and girls were recorded as 90% of those killed by the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh and up to 80% of those lost to the 2004 Asian Tsunami (Plan International 2016).
The multiple and intersecting impacts of climate change on women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) remains under-recognised. Out of 50 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change analysed by UNFPA, only six made direct references to aspects of SRHR. The most commonly cited area of SRHR was maternal health, with gender-based violence referenced in only one NDC. (UNFPA, 2021).
Given how climate change is having an increasing impact on women’s SRHR outcomes, particularly for vulnerable and marginalised women living in low- and middle-income countries, it is imperative that greater attention is paid on prioritising these issues if we are to protect progress made over the past decades.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), highlighted the need for multi-sectoral and intersectional transformations which recognise existing patterns of inequalities, adopt an equity and human rights-based approach and are gender- and age- specific, in order to facilitate climate resilient development pathways for health, well-being, migration and conflict avoidance.
Countries must adhere to their existing greenhouse gas emission reduction targets made to the 2015 Paris Agreement and scale these up to limit warming to 1.5° by the end of the century. However, even a 1.5°C warming by the end of the century will have profound consequences across all sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health outcomes. Therefore, countries must include specific targets for these in their climate adaptation policies and programmes. These include commitments to:
Failure to prioritise women and girls’ health, rights and well-being with an equity lens in climate policies and actions will undermine the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, being at a critical point of their life-course in their own biological, emotional and social development, and due to the fact that they will face the burden of worsening adverse impacts of climate change throughout their lifetime.
Adolescents are at risk of the impacts of both the immediate physical and psychological effects of climate change, as well as the consequences of increasing food insecurity, loss of land, forced migration and the future sustainability of the planet.
Education and employment opportunities for adolescents are also affected by extreme weather events and the impact of climate change on agriculture and forestry, tourism and other climate-vulnerable sectors. Furthermore, exposure to extreme and slow-onset events impact adolescents’ psychological well-being, while the overwhelming and existential threat of the climate crisis causes feelings of disempowerment, impacting adolescents’ agency, purpose, and resilience.
Today, the world has more young people than at any time in history. However, far too many of today’s 1.8 billion adolescents and youth (ages 10-24) are not reaching their full potential due to the failure of current policies and investments to meet their needs.
The 1.8 Billion Young People for Change campaign aims to bring together young individuals to advocate for increased investment and policies that align with their desires. Young people, activists, artists from all corners of the globe are joining forces, urging decision-makers to listen and take action on their priorities for health and well-being, including measures to tackle the impact of climate change.
A key part of the campaign is What Young People Want– a groundbreaking survey, the largest-ever exploration of what young people want from their leaders, concerning their health and well-being. The campaign is being organised with the support of PMNCH, the largest global alliance advocating for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health and hosted by the WHO.
By September, 2023, PMNCH expects to have secured 1 million responses to the What Young People Want survey and will launch the Agenda for Action for Adolescents. Young people’s voices will be shared with leaders and policymakers, campaigners, youth activists and other stakeholders advocating for adolescent well-being.
In October 2023, PMNCH will host the Global Forum for Adolescents, an unprecedented gathering focused on adolescent well-being. The forum will serve as a pivotal moment for the 1.8 Billion Young People for Change campaign, bringing together young individuals, advocates, global leaders and decision makers.