Women and the planet: Messaging that doesn’t work

Creating and promoting a messaging frame that allows for productive discussion of linkages between family planning and environmental issues is no small task. That said, we have seen some real movement among environmental, family planning and development leaders toward the position that meeting the unmet need for family planning is a crucial, low-cost, common-sense tactic in helping women adapt to climate change, build more sustainable communities, and reduce climate change emissions.

Following on our earlier post on messaging that works when connecting the dots between women’s empowerment, family planning and sustainability, today we’re tackling three things NOT to do.

1. Talking “Population”

It’s understandable, and easy, to frame human population as the problem in a world of heartbreaking inequalities and rapidly diminishing natural resources. But it doesn’t work, and in fact is likely to ignite opposition even in audiences who may be receptive to rights-based approaches. The legacy of population control campaigns around the world lingers on, as well it should. Recent public opinion research shows that even the most dedicated environmentalists are far more compelled by messages about women’s rights and health than they are about the threat of growing numbers. Our advice is to lead with women’s needs and women’s stories. Of course, the benefits of slower population growth can’t be ignored, and should be mentioned at opportune moments. Many leaders in developing countries are eager to discuss these issues, for example. But one can never be too woman-focused, and if you must err, err on the side that may seem obvious: real people with real needs matter most to all audiences.

2. Sidelining Global South Voices

Advocates across the population, family planning and environmental communities know that women from the global South are by far the most persuasive messengers on the linkages between family planning and sustainability. Investing the time and energy to recruit, prepare and support global South messengers – especially women – is well worth the energy. These voices, by their very presence, defuse allegations that environment/family planning linkages may shift blame to poor women for environmental catastrophes. They also powerfully address the feeling tone, narrative texture and lived experience of the many millions of women who want access to contraception but cannot obtain it.

3. Ignoring The Elephant in the Room

The United States has the highest levels of unmet need for modern contraception of any rich country, by a significant margin. It’s also one of the world’s largest climate polluters per capita, and in aggregate. Skillfully addressing these intertwined realities is an absolute must. Particularly when US messengers are at center stage, the appearance of environmental imperialism may alienate important potential allies. The best way to defuse that possibility? Own up to the problematic US track record on both access to family planning and sustainability and create space for audiences to reflect on both.