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Suzanne Ehlers Headshot

The Faces of 7 Billion

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FAMINE IN AFRICA
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I just had my annual exam. Yes, that annual exam, ladies.

Aside from the normal things you would discuss with your midwife -- how's the IUD treating you? how's your 15-month-old? -- we also talked shop.

I told her I serve as the CEO of a non-profit dedicated to advancing women's reproductive health.  She told me about the high burn-out rate among midwives, as the schedule can be punishing and the demands intense. We touched briefly on the numbers of babies a midwife might "catch" in a given shift: as many as five or six even.

It's funny how these conversations often turn quickly to numbers. At Grist, Lisa Hymas' latest volley about being child-free by choice brought up the number zero. She raised important questions about desired fertility and ideal family size, in a world where Americans consume a lion's share of resources, contribute immensely to carbon emissions, and then debate about whether climate change exists.

It's an issue I am always grappling to get my head around -- not from a numeric perspective, but from a heart perspective.  Where am I on this spectrum, a mother of two (well-spaced and planned) young girls? Financial resources notwithstanding, I'd love to have several more children... but with world population hurtling toward 7 billion -- another important number -- I have another sense of what the planet can support, and what I can send through school.

This month I read a fascinating article in National Geographic about Brazilian "girl power," and Nick Kristof's column about a starving, eight-months-pregnant mother in Niger who had already lost two children. I also had dinner with several Cornell chums, each of whom represents a different spot on a surprisingly diverse and interesting fertility continuum.

All are powerful reminders that numbers only get you so far; there are women at the heart of those figures, and that's where every conversation needs to begin and end. This issue we work on -- family planning, reproductive health, contraception -- is not only non-controversial and mainstream, it is also incredibly central to the realities of my friends, my colleagues, myself. It gets at the heart of what women really want.

And what is that exactly? It's described in our new film Weathering Change: Stories About Climate and Family From Women Around The World.

It's what brings tears to Radhika Poudel's eyes when she talks of the struggle to keep her kids in school in rural Nepal -- and how absolutely non-negotiable a point this is. If uneducated, she suggests, they'll likely suffer a fate as tough as her own, struggling to get enough to eat as unpredictable rains destroy harvests.

It's what Fatima Said Yesuf of Wollo, Ethiopia, means when she gets mad at herself for being "poor and penniless." She's not bemoaning a missed pair of new shoes; she's talking about how she will raise her six children now that a flash flood has taken her home.

And finally it's what Peruvian mother Edita Zambran Romero refers to when she talks about the low status of women in the community -- "we aren't worth much and men are worth more" -- and how her two-year-old Lourdes' future might be, must be, different.

In the current D.C. environment, my colleague and longtime Hill advocate Craig Lasher recently stated a painful truth: no arguments seem to be making any real difference in these resource-constrained and politically charged times. And yet, we must keep trying because we know the fate of so many women hangs in the balance. As bad as things are, they could get worse.

Right now, Congress is focused on numbers:  1.5 trillion in cuts over 10 years that the Super Committee is trying to make.  I'd like to offer another number: 215 million. That's how many women in the developing world want to prevent pregnancy, but still don't have access to modern contraception. That's mothers, daughters, friends who are desperately trying to do the best for their families and themselves -- usually in environments far more resource-strapped than our own.

It doesn't take much to change their lives. Family planning programs are cost-effective, and proven to work. A rounding error of the Super Committee could mean life-saving family planning and reproductive health interventions for millions of women.

And we hope a single, newly convinced member of Congress, historically passionate about the environment but never about women, might see the film and approach climate adaptation funding in a way that gives women more control over their own lives in a rapidly changing world.

Mothers like Radhika, Fatima and Edita won't stop, can't stop, trying to create the best lives for their families. We owe it to them not to stop either.