Men, Welcome to the World of Contraception

Recently, the world was made aware of a study that cleared a contraceptive pill as safe for men. The results of the study indicate that it is possible to decrease sperm production while preserving sexual drive and avoiding serious side effects.

For years, women have been held primarily responsible for birth control and have had to suffer the side effects of various contraceptives. But, it’s 2019 and birth control should exist for everyone! This study shows that the world of sexual and reproductive health and rights could, in the future, be very different to how it is today:

1) Both men and women will be held responsible for wanted, or unwanted pregnancy.

While some people may argue that it is unfair that women have been solely responsible for birth control for so many years, there have been some advantages. With birth control options, women are able to plan for or prevent pregnancy, while men do not have the option to do so as directly. The introduction of a male birth control would ensure both sexes to have a voice in discussions about pregnancy and children.

2) There will be a greater effect on the climate.

Women who take birth control excrete the chemicals as waste and in turn, an increasing presence of these synthetic hormones have been found in soil and water around the world. As with any drug, introducing a male contraceptive would increase the level of chemicals being released into the environment.

3) Men will experience side effects of birth control that women have been experiencing for years.

In the study conducted, men reported a few non-severe side effects as well as side effects that could be seen as deal-breakers for taking the pill. The non-severe effects included fatigue, acne and headaches, and more serious reports were made of loss of muscle mass, hair loss, decrease in libido and erectile dysfunction.

Many women will find this ironic, as female contraception methods have historically had many side effects but have never been seen as ‘unsafe’ for consumption. Side effects for women can include blood clots, weight gain, increased risk of certain cancers and mental illness.

We are still a long way away from the introduction of a male contraception – but it is on the horizon!

I believe that allowing both men and women to make active choices to either prevent or achieve pregnancy will give many people more control over their lives, sexual health and safety.

At 25, I’m Finally Meeting my Cycle

I started taking the contraceptive Pill at 15. At 19, I had an implant inserted. Earlier this year, a decade after starting, I stopped using hormonal contraception.

My decision was mainly based on my growing disbelief at how little I knew about my own reproductive health.

At 15, at 19, at 22, all I’d known was that I did not want to get pregnant. And all I’d had to do was make an appointment with my doctor, pick my poison from the menu of contraception on offer, receive no guidance, ask no questions, fail to read the leaflet handed to me, swallow a tablet I knew nothing about once a day and get on with my life. Easy.

I’ve visited a doctor several times with concerns that my contraception might be adversely affecting me. Each time, I was reassured that whatever symptom I was worried about had another explanation. Anxious? Exam stress. Overly emotional? Family stress. No energy? Life stress. I once summoned up enough courage to tell a university doctor I was worried the Pill was the reason I had no interest in having sex with my long-term boyfriend. She laughed, asked me which magazine I’d read that in and told me it was common for people to grow apart at my age.

Hormonal contraception is the only medication we take without being sick. It impacts our emotions, mental health, quality of life and long-term fertility. Yet we are not educated about it.

As I learned more about the impacts of artificial hormones on emotional wellbeing, it started to frighten me to think of how regularly women say “I didn’t feel like myself” when describing contraception that didn’t work for them. I worried that if I’d been using artificial hormones since the age of 15, they could be affecting or even creating parts of what I thought of as my ‘self’.

I’d also been in the dark about the extent to which hormonal contraception affects body literacy. If you’d asked at any point over the past few years, I think I would have said that I knew my body quite well. I’ve never felt too terribly uncomfortable in my body, but never really consciously comfortable in it either.

I’ve learnt more about my own body in the past few months than in the rest of my 25 years combined. Since stopping hormonal contraception I feel connected to my body in a way that I never have before. I feel like I’ve woken up. It’s an incredible and a terrifying feeling, because I’m so horrified to realise that I didn’t know I was asleep.

As I’ve tried to educate myself about natural menstrual cycles – which I’m now experiencing for the first time in my adult life – I feel more alert to the signs and signals my body sends me. I’m working on building my knowledge of what’s happening at different stages of my cycle, and I feel more able to listen to and respect what my body wants and needs at each.

I find my emotions have far less power to stop me in my tracks now that I can better pinpoint the reasons I might feel the way I feel from one day to the next. I feel more energetic and less anxious. I’m more motivated to exercise, my libido is higher, I’m less easily overwhelmed. My hair is thicker and shinier. I feel more confident than I ever have in my life.

It is essential to acknowledge that the Pill and other forms of contraception gave women unprecedented freedom and equality in the past and continue to empower women all over the world today. Access to contraception is linked inextricably with feminism and the fight for gender equality. Having grown up in Scotland, I am in a massively privileged position to have the access that I do to contraception, information and services. I also know that for many women with certain medical conditions, the Pill and other hormonal contraception are absolutely the best options.

My point is that, despite the layers of privilege within my own life, I didn’t know I had a choice. I didn’t know there was choice as to whether or not to use hormonal contraception at all. If we each have a right to contraception then surely we each have a right to make an informed choice about it. It’s not about saying one way is best, or telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s about the basic fact that you should never feel powerless over your own body.

In the 1960s, the Pill was incredibly liberating for women. In 2017, not having to rely on huge pharmaceutical companies or damaging the environment to prevent pregnancy, and to know how my own body works? That sounds liberating to me.

However you choose to prevent pregnancy is entirely your choice to make. Your body is yours alone. But knowledge is power. It feels like I have a whole world to learn about, and I’m excited to be at the beginning of a long road to better understanding and appreciating my body. I’m excited to take control of, understand and demystify this cycle taking place within me every single month, and to harness the power within it.

If you’ve had your own experience of shifting from hormonal to natural contraception, or if you have suggestions of things I should be reading/following/researching – please feel free to share in the comments below!

Sustaining Breastfeeding for our Environment

The health of our planet is affected by the way babies are fed. We know that breastfeeding has overwhelmingly positive impacts on both mother and child – with long-term health effects that last a lifetime. Yet, safeguarding women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding and providing necessary support for women is also of incredible importance for our environment and in tackling climate change.

To break it down, there are a few noticeable impacts that breastfeeding has on combating climate change – when put in contrast to the use of breastmilk substitutes:

  • Reducing waste in your home from breastmilk substitutes
  • Reducing methane gas from cows that produce milk to make formula
  • Reducing industrial waste and pollution from production of breastmilk substitutes
  • Reducing fuel consumed to transport products to market
  • Reducing use of energy to heat formula and sterilize equipment
  • And in the long term – reducing energy use and waste associated with ill health and deaths of children and mothers

Yet, aren’t these points just a necessary evil for women who are not able to breastfeed? For some, yes. David Clark of UNICEF puts it into perspective for us:

“Entire sections of society mistakenly believe that large numbers of women cannot breastfeed and that formula is a necessity, and that any harm caused to the environment is a necessary evil. The breastmilk substitute industry (estimated to be worth $41.5 billion in 2012 and forecasted to double in size and reach $63.6 billion in 2017) has played a significant role in idealizing the use of their products and persuading women that they are either as good as, or better than breastfeeding.”

Like in so many other areas of our lives – especially as women – we are bombarded by marketing telling us how to look, how to behave and what life-changing decisions to make. Breastfeeding is not excluded from this. The detrimental environmental impact of breastmilk substitutes is a responsibility for all of us to bear – not mothers alone. We need to provide enabling environments, supporting policies and changed attitudes that give women the freedom to choose to breastfeed, as part of our efforts to combat climate change.

The biggest task ahead is communicating the important linkages between breastfeeding and the environment – taking the conversation about breastfeeding beyond nutrition to the impact on sustainability and women’s rights, and putting it into practice.

An example of how this is being done is through the work of Pan Asia Pacific. Their work focuses on creating a just and pesticide-free future with strong partnerships at the grassroots level – including with agricultural workers, indigenous peoples and rural women’s movements. They acknowledge that poor women from poor communities are more susceptible to pesticides, which further puts their babies at risk during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They promote women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding – yet they do so with caution, as they know the implications of working in polluted environments.

Safeguarding breastfeeding is an essential step in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals – including the targets related to climate change and our environment – and requires us to collaborate across sectors and at multiple levels. One such partnership is the Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative (BAI), which aims to raise awareness of the contribution breastfeeding can play in combatting climate change.  

“Through the Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative, UNICEF is reaching out to partners beyond the world of infant and young child feeding and this must include allies in the field of environment and climate change,” Clark explains. 

Let’s increase action by ensuring that groups working on environmental issues understand the linkages between breastfeeding and combatting climate change – making this a central part of our advocacy strategies. Advocacy must also include the normalization of breastfeeding as a sustainable way to feed babies – including the message that breastfeeding contributes to reducing our carbon footprint. New mothers and the younger generation need to be informed of the environmental impact of formula feeding in addition to receiving the support they need to choose to breastfeed.

To ensure that sustainability and environmental protection is a central part of breastfeeding advocacy we must broaden our messaging to include environmental and climate change arguments, like curbing the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers. To protect mothers and children that are the most vulnerable, we need to partner with grassroots organizations that work among poor and marginalized groups.

Lastly, the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes creates a framework for us to limit the formula feeding industry and thus safeguard our environment as well as women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding. Let’s ensure that The Code is fully implemented and monitored regularly.  

World Breastfeeding Week takes place from 1 – 7 August 2017. Celebrating collaboration and sustainability, it will focus on the need to work together to sustain breastfeeding. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has created an online platform with downloadable resources available in a range of languages to support individuals and organizations in their own campaigning and advocacy. 

SDG 13: Climate Change – Faces Behind the Numbers

There’s something very unique about working at grassroots level and experiencing firsthand what the community is facing. A single day is enough to make all the statistics fade into the background and replace them with vivid images of what the numbers really represent.

I am currently taking part in the fifth Climate Change and Development in Africa (CCDA-V) conference themed, “Africa, Climate Change and Sustainable Development: What is at Stake at Paris and Beyond?” in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. As a pre-event to the conference, the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC) convened the first African Youth Conference on Climate Change (AfriYOCC) themed, “African Youth Responses to Climate Change and Food Security, Action from the Frontline”. The workshop served as a valuable space for young people to share their climate solutions and incorporate their recommendations to the African Youth Position on the Road to Paris (COP21). I also had the opportunity to serve as a panelist on the topic : “Gender Mainstreaming in Climate Governance and Community Based Adaptation”.

ccda

All the high-level dialogues taking place for me put a spotlight on the community that will have to live the consequences of the outcome of these discussions. Here are my thoughts on the subject.

Goal number 13 of the new Sustainable Development Goals, “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” means so much to a lot of climate activists all over the world. 2015 is a momentous year for our movement. The world needed to agree on its future and we were able to have a standalone goal on climate change. The targets of this goal hold a promise of climate justice and keeping our world safe, for us to be able to breathe long enough to fight another day.

The first target articulates the importance of strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries. Achieving this target is impossible without having the necessary climate change measures integrated into national policies and strategic planning, which is outlined in the second target. The remaining targets also cover critical issues surrounding awareness raising and capacity building, as well as the very backbone of any movement financing. The urgent need to make the Green Climate Fund operational and make sure the developed world follows up on its commitments has been well emphasized. The target highlights the agreement reached for the developed countries to jointly mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020, to address the needs of developing countries for meaningful mitigation, as outlined in the Copenhagen Accord.

Gender

The fifth and last target which focuses on promoting mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change related planning and management brings me to a point I would like to discuss further. It highlights a focus on women,  youth,  local and marginalized communities in countries that do not have enough resources and are being disastrously affected by the hazards of climate change.

We are standing on the verge of COP 21, and we have high hopes for an agreement that will practically complement this goal and deliver for the most marginalized. But we still echo reservations that crumble our much-needed unity for saving the earth. Most concerns arise from factors strongly related to economic growth implications of pursuing a certain development path. One can argue any sort of “development” is meaningless if it compromises the planet we live in, whereas affordability and issues surrounding technology transfer make it that much impossible for another to be as passionate for the cause. A just climate solution can only be reached, when can work on the divide between the global north and south with the utmost integrity and concern for the those whose daily lives rotate around these decisions.

The issue of gender is also a huge factor in determining how effective our programs will be on the ground. Women and children are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and we have established that empowering women and girls is our ticket out of poverty. But we need to translate that knowledge into a set of practical actions that will work through the social constructs which need to be challenged.

Gender mainstreaming in the fight against climate change could not be anymore pressing than now as we are literally racing against time. We acknowledge that empowering women has a ripple effect and positively trickles down to every member of the household. And typically, the rural women of Africa are forced to walk long hours of the day for lack of access to safe drinking water, are more vulnerable to gender-based-violence and remain over-burdened by exclusively bearing reproductive roles around the house.

We have early warning communities that largely consist of women. On a recent gender-analysis I was part of in the east side of rural Ethiopia, we found that the women were more interested and willing to join the early warning community set up by the Disaster Prevention, Preparedness and Control Office of the government. The men justified their lack of interest by saying the women were more “close to the issue” therefore more sensitive and responsible to communicate. On the other hand, a well established norm renders the men the sole decision makers, with better access and control over resources. It is crucial that we creatively engage the men.

We all have a long way to go in building community resilience. Our efforts require that much cross-sectorial collaboration more so than a singular focus on a single thematic area. There is a strong correlation between population, health and environment which we cannot disregard as we plan our programs. We need to remember that behind the numbers there are faces of real people and at individual, local and global levels we have to commit to nothing less than our very best to collaboratively strive towards a world where the impacts of climate change are not only slowed down, but halted. Preserving our planet not just for us but for future generations is all of our shared responsibility.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.