When you think about solutions to climate change, ideas which will come to mind are probably carbon emissions taxation, stricter action against those committing crimes against the planet, or sustainable city planning. Small-scale environmental efforts have also been trending, such as replacing plastic straws with reusable ones, using public transportation more often, or eating less meat. However, an underdog to positive environmental efforts, which is often overlooked, is upholding sexual and reproductive health rights.
In Malaysia, the Contraceptive Prevalence Rate, which measures the prevalence of contraceptive usage, was only 52% in 1984 and has been stagnant since then (Norliza et al., 2012). The Malaysian Country Profile on Universal Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health comments that “Sexual and Reproductive Health is not a priority issue for the Malaysian government, though the unmet need shows an increasing trend.”
On the other hand, climate change is often argued to be the world’s largest threat to humanity. The Earth’s climate is changing rapidly and this will impact human health, agriculture and food security, water supply, transportation, energy, ecosystems, and almost every aspect of our lives. Like many other underdeveloped and developing nations, Malaysia is vulnerable to the risks posed by climate change. The massive floods in Kelantan from late 2014 to early 2015 and the 2016 Sungai Pahang drought due to the El Nino phenomenon exhibit the consequences Malaysia is already facing due to the climate crisis.
POPULATION DYNAMICS: THE COMMON GROUND
The main interlink between climate change and sexual & reproductive health is mostly to do with population dynamics. Climate change is partly caused by over-consumption and over-production. If we continue to extract natural resources from our planet at a dangerously rapid pace to meet our infinite demand, this will perpetuate unsustainable practices like deforestation, pollution etc. Simultaneously, if our population also rises at a dangerously rapid pace, the demand for goods will only increase and more unsustainable practices will be out in place to fulfill this growing demand. When birth-givers have children by chance rather than choice, they have less ability to plan the size of their families, and this contributes to the rapid increase in population across the globe.
WEALTH INEQUALITY GAP AND RESILIENCE
Other than that, climate change also creates a further divide between the rich and the poor. An example of this would be the 2017 Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. To this date, the island is still attempting to recover from the calamity which the hurricane sprung upon them. The poor Puerto Rican communities were hit the hardest and many deaths followed even months after the hurricane. Ensuring sexual and reproductive health rights for all allows birth-givers to have healthier children and smaller family sizes, which will build resilience when facing natural disasters resulting from climate change.
LACK OF FINANCIAL ACCESSIBILITY TO SRH SERVICES
As environmental conditions worsen globally, the world’s poor are the most severely impacted. Hotter global temperatures and changing patterns of precipitation could end economic opportunities for those working on farms. Forest fires, hurricanes, and floods could wipe out entire villages, as we saw in Puerto Rico. Increasing natural disasters are already cause for concern, and on top of it, the toll it will take on the economy will be another crisis in itself.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, sexual and reproductive health services are mostly accessible to those who have the financial means to afford them. Climate change will only perpetuate the cycle of poverty which leads to a widening of the accessibility gap to sexual and reproductive health services. When people are unable to access these services, they have less control of their family size, often resulting in more children than they want and can afford, hence, digging them deeper into the cycle of poverty, a vicious cycle which is already immensely difficult to escape from.
In 2017, a Merdeka Centre survey has shown that 81% of respondents are concerned about climate change and close to half of the respondents are dissatisfied with the government’s efforts in managing it. As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Malaysia has constructed many plans to reduce greenhouse gases, expand the implementation of good agricultural practices, implement engineering approaches to solve coastal erosion, among others. In terms of investing in health, Malaysia has spent over RM9 billion on the health sector, with over RM1.5 billion being for the adaptation of the health sector to climate change during the 10th Malaysia Plan. However, the investment largely focuses on the control and prevention of vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria.
Upholding sexual and reproductive health rights would improve HIV prevention, maternal health, adolescent health and allow human rights to prevail. Birth-givers should be able to have children by choice, not only because it is their human right, but it is a solution to one of the modern world’s largest threats to society: climate change. Hence, I urge our decision-making authorities to recognise the role of sexual and reproductive health services in sustainable development and reflect this in national climate change strategies.