Saving the planet: women are the answer

Australian film director Dr. Fiona Cochrane’s most recent documentary addresses one crucial aspect of the climate change crisis that is often overlooked: the impact of population size on our carbon legacy.

While it is broadly known that human generated greenhouse gases are disrupting and overwhelming the global climate, most of the widely discussed solutions are aimed at reducing consumption and improving technology instead of minimising population growth. Selected for the 2016 United Nations Association Film Festival and recipient of multiple international film awards, Cochrane’s Women Are the Answer reveals that there is in fact a non-coercive and economic way to slow population growth, and it comes down to educating women.

Set in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Women Are the Answer explores the history of a developing region that has been encouraging education of women, and smaller families, since the 1970s. A communist state for much of the last 60 years, with low per-capita income, Kerala provides the opportunity for education to all members of its population. As a result, the state’s male and female literacy rates have been over 90% since the 1980s. Today, Kerala mirrors the literacy rates of Australia.

Kerala’s fertility rate is dramatically lower than the rest of India and other developing regions. Where 5.5 children per couple is common elsewhere in India, in Kerala 1.7 children per couple is most usual. This number has been steadily decreasing over two generations, as more and more women benefit from education and choose to start families at a later stage.

Brought to light by a series of engaging interviews with women of varying ages, the documentary shows that education has had two integral effects for the women of Kerala. Firstly, women have gained knowledge and skills that have opened up the prospect of pursuing a career, naturally postponing the age many of them choose to begin a family. Secondly, education has made the important difference of allowing these women the confidence to stand up to pressures from relatives or in-laws who may encourage them to have children sooner.

There are two aspects to education, the enlightening and the voice.

Prof. Amartya Sen, Women Are the Answer

Educating women has also proven to be the most cost-effective way of reducing population growth in Kerala, and has been far more successful and economical than any other form of direct intervention the state has trailed. Yet, the idea of increasing women’s education and having fewer children as a means of reducing carbon legacy has largely been left out of the global climate change debate. Largely viewed as a controversial idea, many are concerned that encouraging population reduction may be viewed as an invasion on the the autonomy of families, especially for those whose religious beliefs are opposed to family planning.

What Cochrane’s film demonstrates is that reducing population does not inherently have to be linked to arguments about contraception or infringing upon the right of families to make their own choices. If we tackle population growth, using Kerala’s method of increasing women’s education combined with healthcare provision for families, the quality of life in a state is improved whilst naturally minimising the number of pregnancies.

Kerala’s population is comprised of many who are deeply religious from a variety of backgrounds including Muslim, Christian and Hindu. As fascinating interviews in the documentary prove, many of these people who maintain religious values do not view the shift to smaller family sizes as conflicting with a traditional lifestyle. Indeed, having lived through a time when it was common for families to have anywhere from seven to thirteen children, many of the older generation in Kerala endorse the idea of women having fewer children per family.

Women Are the Answer is a captivating and thought-provoking watch, both as an understanding of the climate change crisis and an insight into the fascinating history of Kerala’s people.

Emily Holding
Emily is a volunteer at the Victorian Women’s Trust who primarily works on Here She Is, an online directory that showcases women and non-binary people. Emily is studying a bachelor of Arts and Music and likes to spend her weekends seeing live music, theatre and drag shows.

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