For the past 11 months, a group of United Nations member states has been holding meetings seeking input on future goals for sustainable development once the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in 2015. Led by co-chair ambassadors from Hungary and Kenya, this Open Working Group (OWG) of 69 countries has delved into topics ranging from governance to health and everything in between.

Last week was the working group’s 7th session, which dedicated five full days to discussing sustainable cities, human settlements and sustainable transport, sustainable production and consumption (including chemicals), climate change, and disaster risk reduction. Leaders in business, industry, science and politics kicked off each session, framing the issues and describing the complex task of producing goals, indicators and targets for each theme.


These are big topics, and women play a crucial role in all of them. However, women’s reproductive and maternal health, family planning, and population issues were – as we’ve seen too often – left out of the conversation. If countries care about sustainable development, then ignoring these topics is foolish, and dangerous. Here’s why:

  • Sustainable cities –  Cities are growing quickly. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban. Population dynamics & demographic information is fundamental to effective urban planning and design. In particular, it is important to consider the women and families who are often left in the rural areas while men migrate to the urban setting in the face of loss of livelihoods, due to drought or other causes, and seeking improved livelihoods.
  • Transport – Alongside this rapid urbanization is the fact that those city dwellers need to move around. As such, the number of cars in the developing world is set to increase by more than 430 percent by 2050. In order to best plan sustainable urban settings, we need to use the best kind of data on transportation – including disaggregated population data (on women, children, and marginalized populations), as well as forecasting. As UNFPA’s position paper highlighted, we need to enhance national capacity to assess, project and plan for population dynamics that affect sustainable development.
  • Chemicals & Waste – Currently, between 70,000 and 100,000 chemicals are already on the market with an estimated of 1,500 new ones being introduced each year. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)—mostly found in various materials such as pesticides, metals, additives or contaminants in food, and personal care products—can impose irreversible health effects and risks to humans, especially women and children. Representatives from Denmark, Norway and Ireland mentioned the consequences of chemical waste on women’s reproductive health in their statements on sustainable consumption and production, but those countries were in the minority.
  • Climate change – Women and families are already adapting to environmental challenges that threaten their health and their livelihoods. Countries such as Norway, Mexico, the United States and Peru acknowledged the link between gender and climate and recognized that women are more adversely affected by the drought, and natural disasters. The Women’s Major Group mentioned PAI’s research, which found that though the majority of National Adaptation Plans of Action recognize the linkages between population dynamics and climate change, prioritization of  gender equity and reproductive health interventions lag behind. Policies must then reflect these political priorities.

All in all, advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, including increasing access to voluntary family planning services, can positively influence population dynamics and advance a number of sustainable development priorities, including those related to health, gender equality, food, water, energy security, and environmental sustainability. Addressing population dynamics in ways that respect and protect human rights must be part of the sustainable development goals and post-2015 development framework.

With negotiations beginning in March within the working group, member states and key stakeholders should act now to expand the conversation to include population dynamics and women’s health and rights.