Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The elephant in the room at Rio summit

By Jenny Shipley, Special to CNN
updated 8:19 AM EDT, Wed June 20, 2012
People march to protest violence against women this week in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the U.N. Earth Summit, or Rio+20.
People march to protest violence against women this week in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the U.N. Earth Summit, or Rio+20.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jenny Shipley: Rio summit on sustainable development must address population growth
  • Shipley: Family planning is essential to summit's goal, yet it's not on agenda
  • Shipley says 215 million women who want to plan families have no access to birth control
  • Shipley: Family planning enormously benefits women's lives, the planet, economies

Editor's note: Jenny Shipley is the former prime minister of New Zealand and a member of the Aspen Institute's Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health. She is also vice president of the Club of Madrid, an independent nonprofit organization of 88 democratic former presidents and prime ministers that offers support in democratic leadership and governance and crisis and post-crisis response.

(CNN) -- The United Nations is holding a summit this week in Rio de Janeiro on global sustainable development, but, incredibly, family planning is not on the agenda. How can the summit ignore this elephant in the room?

When the world's population hit 7 billion in October, experts warned that if nothing is done, the global population could grow by another 3.5 billion by 2050. Still, many of the world's women are without the resources to plan their families' growth effectively -- a major factor in stemming the tide of global population expansion.

Clearly, the world's growing population and the significant challenges it poses must be central to any discussion of sustainable development at the U.N. Earth Summit, also called Rio+20, taking place Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Negotiators hammering out the terms for discussion in Rio failed to link the summit's sustainable development goals to the concerns, needs and desires of women worldwide -- particularly to the role that family planning could play in easing the burdens posed by population growth.

Jenny Shipley
Jenny Shipley

We know that when women have access to voluntary family planning services, supplies and information, society sees enormous gains in each of the three pillars of sustainable development -- human development, economic growth and environmental sustainability. Without it, families, communities and natural resources are extraordinarily burdened.

Experts estimate that more than 215 million women around the world want to delay or space childbirth but are not using modern contraception. In fact, meeting this need would cost $3.6 billion per year, a small amount when you consider the enormous benefits.

Join the conversation on sustainability
Rio's 'love hotels' open for business

Providing modern contraception also has the potential to stem population growth and relieve human pressure on the environment and natural resources. We urge governments and global agencies at Rio to make this a priority.

We are at a moment in history where we still have time to make a difference. It is essential that the global discussion in Rio not be blind to the potential solutions that access to voluntary family planning could offer to many of the world's problems.

Our goal is not to control the population: It is to empower women and families, giving them a say over when they will bring another child into this world. We know that when a woman can plan the size of her family, she is healthier, more likely to finish her education, join the labor force, become more economically productive and engage in politics, thus more effectively shaping the future of her family and her country.

We also know that when governments invest simultaneously in voluntary family planning, public health and education, countries can benefit from the "demographic dividend" seen in the Asian Tiger countries.

Frustratingly, instead of recognizing these links, Rio negotiators so far have sidelined them.

Every second, every day, every year we fail to address demand for reproductive health and family planning services. Lives are lost and girls' opportunities to thrive and contribute to their country's development shrink. These are real people. We know that universal access to voluntary family planning services would prevent 150,000 maternal deaths and 25 million abortions every year. This is an issue all governments and negotiators should agree upon if we are serious about sustainable development.

Today, opposition to voluntary family planning can only be attributed at best to outdated thinking, and at worst to a desire to undermine women's rights.

If the motto of the Rio conference is to be realized, that is, to build "the future we want," leaders must step up and call for universal access to reproductive health and voluntary family planning for women everywhere who are denied this right.

Consider the wider benefits to our planet. Providing women with the desired cost-effective, low-tech family planning services would not only dramatically reduce pressure on natural resources, increase supplies of food and water, decrease the risk of conflict over other scarce resources and improve ecological health, but scientists estimate such services would cut carbon emissions by up to one-quarter of what's needed to slow climate change -- an outcome equal to ending deforestation around the world, or increasing 40-fold our reliance on wind power.

My 15 colleagues and I on the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, most of us former national leaders, call on our fellow leaders and negotiators not to ignore the elephant in the room. They must find the political will to make reproductive health fundamental to implementing sustainable development as a major outcome at Rio.

At stake are the very goals the conference is meant to embrace.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jenny Shipley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT