In many parts of the world, especially developing countries women have a primary responsibility for ensuring sufficient resources to meet their families’ needs. In the rural areas, women manage essential household resources like clean water, fuel for cooking and heating and fodder for domestic animals. Women are usually disproportionately affected by environmental degradation because they tend to be more dependent on natural resources in order to carry out their productive activities. In most households in developing countries, for example, women are primarily responsible for growing crops, tending livestock, gathering fuel, and collecting and using water. Degraded environments threaten women’s health, directly and indirectly, and also mean that women must spend more time and effort to find fuel or produce food, for meeting household needs. Poverty adds a further dimension to this relationship, because poor women are unable to afford preventative or curative healthcare services. BY Carlyn Hambuba
Toxic chemicals and pesticides in air, water and earth are responsible for a variety of women’s health risks. In China’s Gansu province, for example, discharges from a state-run fertiliser factory have been linked to a high number of stillbirths and miscarriages1. Water pollution in three Russian rivers is a factor in the doubling of bladder and kidney disorders in pregnant women, while in Sudan a link has been established between exposure to pesticides and peri-natal mortality with the risk higher among women farmers1.
Agents of change
But women also benefit from their unique connection with the environment. Women can be targeted in environmental campaigns to influence behaviour and to change attitudes. If women are aware of environmental issues, they are more likely to influence the attitudes of their children, family members and community.
However, one difficulty in targeting women is that they often spend less time than men watching TV, listening to the radio and reading newspapers. In addition, in many areas education of women is marginalized for cultural or economic reasons, resulting in lower literacy rates among women. For example, a study in the Mekong Delta showed that only 20% of women ever engaged in these activities1.
Nonetheless, in some Asian countries there are examples of women being empowered at the community level to identify the environmental problems which relate to their daily lives and to solve problems in areas such as water, sanitation, waste management, composting and forestry2. Empowering women has helped raise consciousness in environmental issues, as well as about their needs, rights and capabilities in society. Giving women access to resources and services, and improved farm productivity has ultimately empowered women economically through higher profits.
Leading the way
Women themselves are often leading the way in finding solutions to local environmental problems and securing their own livelihoods. In India, women are heading rural movements to promote sustainable farming practices and resist large-scale agricultural operations whose intensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, can harm the environment and health1.
In western Kenya a programme called Rural Stove has trained 50 women in production and marketing of Maendeleo fuel stoves, which have low fuel-wood consumption, thus reducing deforestation. This has created employment for women and also improved the quality of life of those using the stoves by making fuel cheaper and saving time3.
In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Kiota Women’s Health and Development Organisation, a community environmental health project, is promoting economic empowerment for women using solid waste management. Public health and environmental education is targeting women to combat and prevent communicable diseases such as cholera, malaria, typhoid, diarrhoea and tuberculosis. In addition, about 360 women have been trained in solid waste collection and marketing. Women are now collecting different types of solid waste such as empty bottles, papers, metal, and plastics, which are sorted and packed for marketing. Based on an estimated per capita waste production of 1,045 tonnes of solid waste per day, this constitutes a huge business opportunity for these women, whilst delivering environmental benefits as well4.
The root causes of persistent poverty and food insecurity among rural women and the families in many countries are due to lack of empowerment of women and sustainability. Empowering women can enhance the status of rural women in achieving food security, poverty alleviation and sustainable development. This has been recognised by international organisations including the United Nations Development Programme (undp) as priorities for sustainable development. In his keynote address to the International Women’s Health Coalition Annual Gala in January 2004, un Secretary General Kofi Annan said “The greatest weapon in the war against poverty is the empowerment of women and the education of girls. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and investment go up.”5
Carlyn Hambuba is a freelance journalist who specialises in women’s issues and environmental issues. She writes for the Women’s Enews, The Green Times and also presents Environment programmes on unza radio.
- Unfpa (2001). The State of World Population: Footprints and Milestones: Population and Environmental Change. United Nations, New York. Available on www.unfpa.org/swp/2001/pdf/english/chapter4.pdf
- Chatterjee, P. (2003). Women Show the Way. Published on TerraGreen 15th August 2003. http://southasia.oneworld.net
- Dfid (1989). Rural Stoves Programme, Kenya. www.odi.org.uk/tropics/projects/2393.htm
- Swedi, M (2003). Women’s empowerment, through sound management of solid waste. Published in the Guardian, Tanzania 2003-12-29. www.ippmedia.com
- Un Press Release. To Tackle Poverty, Empower Women And Educate Girls, Annan Says. New York, Jan 16 2004, 8:00am. www.un.org/news