Following the claims of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), the Earth is the fundamental resource on which people rely for their prosperity and one´s well-being. Although often ignored and downplayed, in many cases gender norms affect the impact of people on the environment, the effect of environmental degradation on people, and finally, access to and power over natural resources. Specifically, women all over the world provide a livelihood for their families as well as, at the same time, manage the environment. However, according to SIDA, due to existing gender inequalities and gender power relations, women´s knowledge is generally disregarded and their position as an agent of change overlooked. Thus, this week´s blog post will offer an overview of the linkages between the environment and gender, as well as look at how international and national policies and programs might facilitate a necessary change in one´s outlook and simultaneously empower women. By considering a gender analysis of the environment, I will examine gender aspects of the use of natural resources, such as water and land, consumption of services and goods, and lastly, experiences of environmental degradation. Moreover, I will explore the changes in environmental thinking that have gradually developed since 1995, resulting in conferences and official documentation, and changes which resulted in the creation of programs and organizations.
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Global Commitments: The Beijing Platform for Action of 1995
Since 1995, there has been increased awareness of the relationship between gender and environmental issues. For example, numerous international organizations have taken steps to document women’s and men’s different roles in environmental affairs and natural resource management, and there have been various advocacy efforts urging greater attention to gender equality issues in the environment. Specifically, in 1995, the world women conference entitled as “The Beijing Platform for Action” predominantly recognized the link between poverty, natural disasters, health problems, unsustainable development and gender inequalities. It noted the importance of a holistic and multidisciplinary approach in dealing with environmental issues and set out three strategic objectives. The first objective was to actively involve women in environmental decision-making at all levels. The second objective was to integrate gender concerns and perspectives in policies and programs for sustainable development, and the final objective was to encourage the establishment and strengthen mechanisms at the national, regional or international levels to assess the effects of development and environmental policies on women. Simply put, the strategic objectives concerned the issue of women in relation to the environment and emphasized the importance of the role that women played in the development of sustainable and ecologically sound consumption and production patterns by highlighting the need for women to participate in environmental decision-making at all levels.
However, while the Platform stressed that the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment was the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, it also called attention to the interrelation between poverty and environmental degradation and the need to eradicate poverty in order to achieve sustainable development. By doing that, the Platform underlined the need to include national governments and non-governmental organization in environmental issues in order to promote an active and visible policy of gender mainstreaming in all policies and programs, including, as appropriate, an analysis of the differing effects on women and men, before decisions were taken. Practically, there have been numerous examples of progress integrating gender concerns and perspectives in policies and programs for sustainable development.
What Has Changed?
Following the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995, governments have made advances either at the policy level or by bringing gender equality considerations in at the level of specific initiatives. Several countries have carried out technical assistance activities for women, including the promotion of alternatives to firewood, such as solar energy and biogas. For instance, Egypt trained women to use biogas in cooking, whilst Mauritania reported reduced indoor air pollution and the number of time women and children spend collecting firewood as a result of similar efforts. Another example of progressive ideas on environmental issues is China which assisted women in remote mountainous areas to build water tanks. Moreover, some countries adopted specific gender mainstreaming strategies and action plans in the area of sustainable development. For instance, Panama established general frameworks for public policies on gender mainstreaming in environmental plans and programs. Ethiopia developed strategies for gender mainstreaming in environmental conservation and combating desertification. Lastly, further advances have also been made to incorporate gender perspectives into national environmental strategies and action plans in countries such as Norway, Paraguay, Slovakia and Sweden.
However, even though the Beijing Platform for Action has been a fundamental milestone for change, it has not been the sole platform. The Beijing Platform built on earlier global commitments, including the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development, adopted at the International Conference on Water and Environment in January 1992 as well as Agenda 21 adopted at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in 1992. In its charter, Agenda 21 has included a specific chapter on “Global Action for Women towards Sustainable Development” and contained references to women throughout the text. In doing that, it followed the Rio Principle 20 that states:
“Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential in achieving sustainable development.”
To support the argument that the interaction between gender and environment has shifted since 1995, one may consider The World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002. The mentioned summit confirmed the need for thorough gender analysis and gender-specific data in all sustainable development efforts and the recognition of women’s land rights. The summit Declaration stated: “We are committed to ensuring that women’s empowerment, emancipation and gender equality are integrated into all the activities encompassed within Agenda 21, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Plan of Implementation of the Summit.” In making this declaration, the summit has committed itself to making changes related to land ownership and property management.
To elaborate, in a number of developing countries, there has been a great deal of inequality when it comes to land rights. Distinctively, traditional practices and bureaucratic factors have frequently prevented women’s access to natural resource development and management. Following the research of SIDA, women have often lacked the right to own land or property, despite often being the ones who tended to the land. To support this claim further, Bina Agarwal has written a great deal about gender and land rights in Third World countries. Accordingly, “hence, insofar as there is a gender and class-based division of labour and distribution of property and power, gender and class structure people’s interactions with nature and so structure the effects of environmental change on people and their responses to it.” Moreover, women´s property status is correlated with the likelihood of violence. Although generally, it is difficult to identify the causes of marital violence, economic dependence is widely acknowledged as one of the main sources. To demonstrate, a study performed in Kerala, India examined the effects of property status and the likelihood of violence against women. Approximately 500 women from rural and urban backgrounds were interviewed and surveyed about incidents in the household, such as the amount of long-term and current violence that occurred, women’s ownership of the land or house, and other sociodemographic characteristics. By violence, it was meant to include physical, such as hitting as well as psychological, such as threats and psychological trauma. The results of the surveys uncovered that long-term violence was experienced by 41% of women in rural households, while 27% of urban household women reported violence in various forms. Furthermore, of all the women surveyed, 35% did not own any property and of that 35%, 49% experienced physical violence while 84% experienced psychological violence. The research also showed that the amount of violence was significantly lower in households where women-owned land or property. Thus, according to this particular study, women’s access to land and property ownership reduces the risk of spousal abuse by enhancing the livelihood of women as well as providing an escape route and means for survival if abuse begins. In other words, land ownership provides women experiencing marital violence with a credible exit option as it decreases the level of dependency on one´s spouse.
Women´s Activism on Environmental Issues
However, there is further documentation of change occurring in relation to the environment. International organizations, conferences and other global platforms are not the only actors manifesting their commitment towards activism on environmental issues. Just take into consideration power of individual women, such as Wangari Maathai, Habiba Sarabi, and Mary Mavanza. To exemplify, the Nobel Prize Winner, Wangari Maathai, launched the Green Belt Movement, which has planted millions of trees in Kenya and transformed women into powerful advocates for their rights, good governance and democracy, and natural resource protection. Habiba Sarabi, the governor of Bamiyan Province and the first female governor in Afghanistan, created her country’s first national park, Bande Amir, protecting 220 square miles of pristine lakes and limestone canyons. Her work has inspired local communities to join her environmental efforts. Whilst these women dedicated their time and resources to preserve the natural environment, Mary Mavanza in Tanzania has assisted to Tanzanian women start environmentally sustainable businesses through microcredit loans and by providing training in accounting. By doing that, Mavanza has confronted challenges in starting or expanding small-and-medium-sized businesses, such as women´s access to training, networks, finance, technology, and markets. However, Mavanza is not the sole example of a woman devoted to providing women with access to decision making, finance and training. The women´s energy organization Solar Sister is also engaged in providing technical, business, sales and marketing training for women. In doing that, the organization assists women in setting up small businesses as well as in selling sustainable energy products to their communities. Moreover, the significance of Solar Sister also lies in its location, for it supports communities in Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria, many of which lack access to an electrical grid and where women lack access to wage-earning work. In other words, Solar Sister brings sustainable energy solutions and skills to solve issues on the local and regional level.
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Gaps and Challenges
However, despite suggested progress, women continue to be under-represented in decision-making processes on the environment at all levels – international, national and local. Some of the reasons include their high illiteracy rates, limited access to natural resources, lack of information and training, stereotypical attitudes regarding their roles as well as insufficient research on gender equality and environment. Women’s limited participation in decision-making processes related to almost all environmental sectors. Obstacles to their participation include the lack of secure access to land, adverse financial conditions, women’s time constraints, public policy traditionally focused on the male population as head of household and gender division of labour along socio-cultural norms
Furthermore, I have observed considerable gaps in environmental assessments. In many circumstances, environmental assessments are seen as technical exercises to be carried out by engineers and scientists. Significant investments have been made in the development of methodologies and tools, yet these tend to omit gender perspectives and can often fail to incorporate aboriginal women’s perspectives. For instance, a United Nations training manual designed to build capacity on environmental assessments pays almost no attention to gender equality issues. A study from Canada revealed that in the complex mix of aboriginal land claims, nickel mining and environmental assessment, both the participation of aboriginal women and gender-based analysis was weak. Analysts uncovered that even though some socio-economic data in the environmental assessment was disaggregated by sex, there was little analysis of the differential impact of the proposed development on Inuit women.
Thus, to conclude my observation, discussing environment and gender, although I believe we have gone a long way in improving our relationship with the environment and have begun to recognize the relevance of gender in our analysis, there is still more work to do and more perspectives to consider. To support this claim, one needs to realize that issues I mentioned on today´s blog are only small pieces of a bigger picture. More work is required on the topics of climate change or on environmental assessment. Thus, to make true progress one needs to look at the interaction between gender and the environment holistically and continue to advocate gender analysis in all cases.
School of Gender Studies and Law
University of London