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June 22, 2012

Reflections on Rio: Reproductive Rights, Measuring Success, and Why I Never Had Time to Get in the Water

Sitting in a circle on a bright Tuesday morning in central Rio, a group of bubbly Brazilian teenagers are talking sex. While not an uncommon conversation for the girls -- a group of peer educators from a favela called Cachoeirinha -- today is a little bit different. Not only is the room where they're gathered especially crowded, and filled with English accents chirping above their lyrical Portuguese, today the girls are asked questions that extend far beyond sexual health.

"What are the three most important needs in your life?" asks one of the many NGO representatives gathered around the teens, listening intently to their dialogue. The group talks amongst themselves, and finally responds: "Safety and security, job availability, and a clean environment." In a city exploding with new residents, challenged by the task of providing amenities like electricity and trash collection to its ever-growing population, with huge gaps between rich and poor and an unsettling dichotomy between the white sand beaches of Ipanema and the crowded favelas creeping up the once-green hills, the priorities of these young people ring true for each and every one of us in the room.

The morning's conversation begins with access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), but quickly grows to a broader discussion of what those services and rights mean for women's families and futures -- namely protection from gender-based violence, autonomy and independence, pregnancy timing and spacing that allows for employment outside the home, and a sustainable, clean environment in which to raise children. It becomes clear that each young person in the room is a living example of the connections between health, rights, and sustainability -- the connections that brought us to Rio de Janeiro to hear their stories.

A few hours later, after leaving the BEMFAM outpost where these young people graciously shared their thoughts on reproductive health and a sustainable future,  I'm once again sitting in a windowless conference room at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20. Flipping through emails, I see that the negotiating text for the Rio outcome document has been finalized -- and has removed language on sexual and reproductive rights and adolescents.

The enormous disconnect between the political game taking place inside the halls of RioCentro and the reality of young people's lives a few miles away is striking. In a world where 215 million women have an unmet need for family planning, and when meeting this need improves health, bolsters economies, helps women better manage resources, aids in climate mitigation and adaptation, fosters gender equity, and promotes sustainable communities, it's appalling that this language is excluded from a document designed to create "The Future We Want."

A future where the rights of young people to make decisions about their sexuality are not guaranteed is not a future we want. An outcome document with minimal progress for women's rights and health does not create the future we want. The NGO community has worked hard these past few days and months, hosting events and panels to highlight the connections between sexual and reproductive rights and sustainability, lobbying delegates to speak out on their importance, blogging and tweeting and publishing countless articles on the necessity of a comprehensive and holistic approach to development that incorporates the needs of women -- only to realize that the future we want is not the one that many world leaders want for us.

Yet something important has happened at Rio+20 -- a movement that began brewing in the halls and meeting rooms of RioCentro and resulted in unprecedented attention to the rights of women as they link to sustainability. "One leader after another has stood up for reproductive rights, and we’ve started a campaign here," explains Christian Friis Bach, Minister for Development Cooperation in Denmark, at an event hosted by the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who traveled to Rio to represent the development agenda of the United States, boldly asserts to conference delegates on Friday that "women must be empowered to make decisions on whether and when to have children" if the world is to attain agreed-upon sustainable development goals. The final negotiating text may not reference reproductive rights, but the issue is one that has not been ignored in Rio de Janeiro, even from the highest-ranking negotiators.

As I pack up the bathing suit that never touched the water and the conference badge that's been a permanent fixture around my neck, I think about the girls in Cachoeirinha and whether we failed them this week. If we gauge success by the language in the outcome document -- laying out the importance of reproductive health but neglecting to ensure the rights of women and adolescents to make decisions about their own childbearing -- we have failed. But if we measure our effectiveness by the outpouring of support for linking reproductive rights and sustainability, the statements of world leaders reiterating these important connections, the multitude of side events and panels bringing together the environmental and family planning sectors, and the passion of people from around the world who devote their lives to this intersection, we have been wildly successful.

"I am not depressed about the text," explains renowned physicist, feminist, and environmental champion Vandana Shiva on a Tuesday night panel. "I did not come here for a text. I came here out of solidarity." 

So in solidarity with the incredible advocates in Rio, with women and men from around the world working doggedly to create a sustainable world that embraces the rights and health of people everywhere, and in solidarity with the spunky Brazilian teens who will be infinitely more affected by our work than a single delegate at the United Nations, I will board the plane to Washington knowing that we did not fail. Together, we showed the world that a sustainable future cannot be ensured without addressing women’s access to basic rights, including the critical decision of if and when to have children. A future that guarantees this access is a future we do want.

-- Kimberly Lovell, Program Director for Sierra Club's Global Population and Environment Program

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