“Human life and the natural world are inseparable.” –Saul Pauu Maaz, GOJoven Fellow and indigenous Q’eqchi’ Mayan leader, author of “The Earth is Not Ours, We Merely Borrow it From Our Children: Lessons from the Maya Q’eqchi”
If human life and the natural world are inseparable, then so are reproductive rights and environmental sustainability. Here at GOJoven, we believe that women have a right to choose if, when and how often they have children and that this choice leads to better health outcomes and a healthier planet. In celebration of World Environment Day on June 5, 2014 GOJoven reflects on the importance of connecting population, health and the environment in our quest to improve the lives of youth and adolescents where we work in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
Across the globe, organizations and policy makers are calling for investment in programs that connect population, health and environment. Pathfinder International notes that an integrated Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) approach that addresses both sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and the environment has a “greater impact on improving reproductive health and natural resource management outcomes” and is more cost-effective than addressing each issue separately.
The link between SRH and the environment resembles a multi-directional roundabout, rather than a one way street. Environmental degradation leads to negative health outcomes. As Charlotte Brody and Julia Varshavsky’s point out in their article The Flip Side: How the Environment impacts Our Reproductive Health, the chemicals that poison our food and the car exhaust that pollutes the air we breathe can lead to infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects, among other issues. Conversely, lack of sexual and reproductive health rights limits women’s and families’ abilities to adapt to environmental stresses by choosing if, when and how often to have children. On the positive side, reduced population growth resulting from providing sexual and reproductive health services and choices enables communities better to manage their natural resources; while community collaboration to promote sustainability itself builds community resilience and promotes health.
GOJoven Mexico, a new youth-led organization in Quintana Roo, Mexico created by Fellows of the Public Health Institute’s Youth Leadership in Sexual and Reproductive Health Program (GOJoven), is taking action to protect reproductive rights and the environment.
We recently interviewed the Secretary of the GOJoven Mexico Board of Directors, Lemuel Vega, to see what he had to say about SRH and the natural world. Lemuel has worked hard to conserve and monitor sea turtles in Cozumel, and has participated in international spaces such as the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, COP 16 in Quintana Roo in 2010 and COP 17 in South Africa in 2011 to advocate for environmental conservation and connect it to reproductive health. Lemuel has observed that “unplanned adolescent pregnancy leads to school dropouts among both girls and boys; among girls because they need to give birth, and among boys because they have to work to support their new family.” This ultimately leads to youth unemployment, an increase in poverty, and an unsustainable use of local natural resources.
Knowing the link between sexual and reproductive health and a healthy environment, Lemuel told us that one solution is to teach comprehensive sexual education in schools so that youth can make responsible and informed decisions about their sexual behavior and fertility. GOJoven Mexico steps in during high school student’s mandatory chemistry classes to teach them about SRH and their right to choose if, when and how often they have children.
The benefits of GOJoven’s work to educate youth about their sexual and reproductive rights move beyond promoting safe sex and planned families. GOJoven’s work helps create a healthy planet and a safe space for all of us to raise happy families, because human life and the natural world are indeed inseparable.