Gender equality and women’s empowerment today for a sustainable tomorrow 

Photo credit: UNFPA Nepal / Matthew Taylor

As the world continues to battle and recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and governments look to institute policies to build back better and greener, we are at the same time affected by another global crisis – climate change – and the impact it has on women’s health, rights and equality.  

Climate change is a multiplier of pre-existing forms of vulnerabilities and inequalities, including gender inequalities, often resulting in negative impacts for women and girls. Between 2010 and 2020, Asia and the Pacific accounted for three-quarters of the 122 million people that were affected by disasters. With Asia-Pacific being the most disaster-prone region in the world, we cannot ignore the disproportionate effects of climate change on women and girls.  
Gender-based violence and harmful practices, including child marriage and female genital mutilation, increase among climate-affected populations. Climate-related emergencies also cause major disruptions in access to essential sexual and reproductive health services and life-saving medicines, including for maternal health care, contributing to a higher risk of maternal and newborn deaths. 

Forty-three year old Adelina from Dinagat, the Philippines, illustrates how climate change affects women as they seek maternal health care. Adelina was pregnant with her sixth child when recently Super Typhoon Odette made landfall, badly damaging the nearest medical unit and leaving her with no choice but to take a difficult two hour boat ride to give birth in a hospital in a nearby city.  

There is a critical role that all stakeholders have in ensuring that climate adaptation, and disaster preparedness, response and early recovery efforts are climate-resilient and more inclusive. This will ensure that women have access to sexual and reproductive services and information, including maternal health, family planning, and protection services. This in turn will empower women and girls to protect their rights, make choices and realize their potential, as well as strengthen climate change-affected communities’ ability to adapt. 

During the Fourth World Conference held in Beijing in 1995, the global community agreed to promote an active and visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective into all policies and programmes. More than 25 years later, we see that progress towards achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment has been slow. For this reason, UNFPA and its partners are stepping up their efforts to reverse this worrying trend and achieve universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.  

As women remain on the frontlines of the pandemic and climate crisis, whether as health professionals, community leaders, educators or unpaid care providers, there is an urgent need to build the resilience of women and girls in every society at all levels to combat any crisis and ensure their access to sexual and reproductive health services and information.  

When floods badly affected the Rohingya refugee camps last year in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, midwife Shakila Parvin was quick to provide support on the ground in delivering sexual and reproductive health services. She also provided mental health support to families, reassuring them of the health and safety of mother and newborn after emergency deliveries.  

The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action called for making the rights of women and their reproductive health a central topic in national and international economic and political development efforts. Yet, while it is essential to achieve bodily autonomy for all people, only 55% of girls and women aged 15-49 who are married or in unions say they can make their own decisions about sexual and reproductive health and rights by deciding about healthcare, contraception and their own sexual practices.  

In order to ensure a better and more sustainable future for all, it is of critical importance to accelerate transformational progress including through maternal health and family planning services, increased sexual and reproductive health-related decision-making, and by strengthening policies, organisations, and feminist and youth networks to promote and protect these issues to build resilient societies, especially in the context of climate change.

 To facilitate this, UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, is working to deliver a world where women can lead in ensuring a sustainable future. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, UNFPA calls on all governments to join its efforts and invest in achieving universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, including by ensuring the meaningful participation of women and girls in climate action by shifting and sharing power with excluded groups and people – and promoting gender parity in all decision-making spaces. 


Björn Andersson is the Regional Director of UNFPA Asia and the Pacific. He has almost three decades of extensive experience in international development cooperation with key positions in programme management, policy development and strategic organizational management, in the UN System and government agencies. 

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