Women and the planet: What works

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.

Three key lessons:

Grounding the Story in Women’s Empowerment

Even when reaching out to the fiercest conservation advocates, we recommend leading with women’s needs, voices and lives – always. Women’s empowerment is a universally shared value among the very diverse decision makers and advocates we’ve approached. Focusing on women’s desires for better lives for themselves and their children, and the crucial role that access to family planning plays, provides a persuasive entry for all audiences. From there, bridging to environmental benefits is an easy reach, and one that makes intuitive sense. In many cases this linkage – through slower population growth and reduced impacts as a result – should be clearly explained as a secondary, incidental benefit that springs from the primary “win” of dramatically improved maternal and child health, and enhanced human rights.

Powerful Storytellers

The communications truism that the messenger is more important than the message holds truer than ever here. When women, particularly women from the global South, speak to the wants, needs and heartbreak of women worldwide who want to plan their families, audiences are moved to examine people/planet linkages through the lens of empowerment and synergy. We find that deployment of women, and particularly global South women leaders, is the key catalyst to ensure positive reactions to a discussion of this nexus, and to short-circuit objections from both the right and left that center on coercion, blame and population control.

Seizing the Media Moment

Reaching elite audiences and decision-makers through the media is never something to take lightly, particularly when individual outreach is an option and opposition backlash likely. Pegging media outreach to an existing news hook is the only option in this time of hyper-accelerated media cycles. For example, the “Day of 7 Billion” in October 2011 presented an opportunity to interrupt the “sky is falling” tone of much population coverage with a positive message of women’s empowerment and sustainability.

We used the “Day of 7 Billion” to pair unlikely messengers together, particularly leading environmentalists and women’s rights advocates, as proponents of voluntary family planning and women’s empowerment. Through these pairings, we were able to introduce leaders from both communities to each other, and to demonstrate that questions around human population can be addressed well and wisely by leaders from different worlds. These very alliances helped to deflect the old criticisms – surprisingly, there was no substantial right-wing backlash to any of the three pieces – and may have helped to set a new conversation in motion.