Susan Kabiwa-Nturama

[Editor's Note: The following post is co-written by David Banks, Africa Program Director for The Nature Conservancy, and Caroline Crosbie, Senior Vice President of Pathfinder International, a global health organization focused on sexual and reproductive health. The Conservancy and Pathfinder work together in Tanzania to integrate conservation and human health.]

Susan Kabiwa-Nturama lives in western Tanzania. With 6 children, she struggles to support her family, working long days on her small plot of land and walking hours each morning to gather water.

These days, fields are less productive, water is scarcer and access to health care is difficult to obtain, sometimes dangerously difficult. Childbirth complications mean long journeys to Kigoma, the nearest city. In 2007, Susan nearly died from such complications, and she lost her baby that day. One in ten children in western Tanzania die before the age of five, a period of life that is both precious and precarious for children and their families in much of rural Africa.

When asked to compare her life to that of her parents, she says simply, “Life is harder.” What would make life easier, Susan says, are things many of us take for granted: primary school, access to family planning and more knowledge about ways to protect and utilize natural resources.

Susan’s story is one of thousands that connects women’s empowerment and ecological health. Her story also highlights the increasing interdependence of people and our planet — which was exactly one of the topics at the United Nations Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro this month. Hundreds of world leaders gathered to focus on the road to sustainable development for people.

The Nature Conservancy and Pathfinder’s work in Tanzania’s Lake Tanganyika region has convinced us of the importance of centering the sustainable development conversation on women and families. Our joint Tuungane Project there shows the powerful ripple effect of women’s empowerment — supporting families and communities to grow healthier and more prosperous, while maintaining and restoring balance between people and the essentials that nature provides, such as fresh water, clean air and fertile soil. Day after day, we see that meeting women’s needs for reproductive health services is not only a basic right, it is a powerful development strategy with a host of environmental benefits.

Addressing this need holistically — from investing in family planning and reproductive health to improving natural resource management — dramatically reduces maternal and child mortality, enhances human rights and helps protect the natural resources upon which communities depend. The Tuungane Project adopts this holistic approach, building the capacity of Lake Tanganyika communities to manage their forests and fisheries while increasing access to healthcare, especially modern contraception for the many Tanzanian families who want to space and plan their pregnancies.

It’s not just Tanzanian families who want the contraceptive basics many take for granted. Around the world, 215 million women want, but don’t have access to, modern contraception — the information and services that allow them to safely plan their families, and choose when and how many children they want. With Pathfinder’s roots in Boston’s famed medical and humanitarian communities, we know that women around the world deserve the same access and power to plan their families that we have here at home.

But this is not a one-sided coin: while access to reproductive health is fundamental to sustainable development, we must address the “development” part of the equation as well. Wasteful consumption and large carbon footprints in rich countries are major contributors to environmental degradation. Moving towards a greener economy in developed countries, and helping developing countries achieve their economic goals in a greener way, benefits people and the planet. Incorporating women’s, children’s and community health — along with gender equity — is critical to attaining a more sustainable human relationship with our planet.

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 [Image: Susan Kabiwa-Nturama. Image source: Ami Vitale]

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