No hope without gender equality

The daily lives of millions of women and men clearly demonstrate that gender equality, environmental sustainability and poverty eradication are closely linked. This has major implications for policies and actions. Gender1 is a determining factor in poverty-environment linkages. Gender inequalities, environmental deterioration and deepening poverty are mutually self-reinforcing. Conversely, improvements in any one of these areas can leverage improvements in the other two, thus enhancing livelihoods, protecting health, and reducing vulnerability.
By Irene Dankelman, Coordinator of the Sustainable Development Programme of the University of Nijmegen, and Senior Advisor Sustainable Development of Women’s Environment and Development Organisation in New York, USA

Since the dawn of history, women have contributed essentially to the conservation, use and management of natural resources. Around the world they play distinct roles from men: managing land and biodiversity, collecting water, fuel and fodder, as well as other natural resources. In so doing they contribute time, energy and skills, not to mention their personal vision, to family and community development. Their extensive experiences make them an invaluable source of knowledge and expertise on environmental management.

Indigenous women draw on a complex knowledge base. They are familiar with ecosystems, geographic features, climate, weather, and tides. They understand the ecological succession, habitats and life cycles of resource species. They have detailed knowledge of all kinds of plants and animals, their habitat requirements, means of reproduction, nutritive values, as well as knowledge of various types of tinder and fuel, foods, and medicinal herbs. They have also acquired all manner of survival skills, as well as general first aid, midwifery and childcare. Their’s too is cultural knowledge and understanding – including important plants and animals – rules relating to resources use, sharing and acquiring knowledge in culturally appropriate ways2.

As Ruth Lilongula from the Solomon Islands said: “Biodiversity is the very core of our existence within our communities. You cannot say how many dollars this is worth because it is our culture and our survival. In this context biodiversity is invaluable … We value our surroundings as our identity, as who we are, and our inheritance that is given to us … Our environment is many things, a classroom, a pharmacy and a supermarket”3.

On the other hand, when the environment is degraded women and girls suffer first. A study in the Sindhuli district of Nepal, undertaken in 1993-94 by ActionAid, clearly demonstrates this point. Environmental degradation has compounded economic stress within households and on scarce resources. This means that pressure, not only on women, but also on children, to do more work and at an earlier age is increasing. Girls do the hardest work, have the least to say and the fewest education options. “My parents want to make their son a BA [graduate]. But order me to get fodder and fuelwood every day” (girls song, Nepal). To promote girls’ school enrolment in fragile ecosystems, environmental quality is a precondition4.

Similar linkages are apparent in access to safe drinking water and gender equality. Women are the main collectors and users of water for household uses worldwide. The availability of clean water consequently reduces water collection burdens, in particular the care burden for mothers. The incidence of water-borne diseases is reduced. Commonly entitlement to water is linked to land, but land tenure laws and legal systems show major gender disparities in ownership and rights, distorting women’s access to environmental assets in many parts of the world. There is also an increased incidence of physical and sexual assault when women have to walk long distances to remote areas for water and sanitation, particularly in situations of conflict and war. Access to water and sanitation closer to home, would limit women’s vulnerability.

Global environmental change jeopardises environmentally based livelihood strategies. Climate change is predicted to accentuate the gaps between the world’s rich and poor, as people living in poverty are more vulnerable. The effects of climate change are very likely to effect poor people disproportionately and to be gender-differentiated. Perspectives, responses and impacts surrounding disaster events vary for men and women. They have different sets of responsibilities, vulnerabilities, unequal capabilities and opportunities for adjustment. Women and men experience environmental change differently. The effects of the tsunami of 26 December 2004 showed that clearly.

However, as in many other environmental and sustainable development negotiations and agreements, gender aspects are also still poorly represented in the climate change negotiations.

Women have organised themselves to protect the environment and promote environmental justice: in their communities, in national organisations, in international networks, working on issues such as biodiversity, land rights, access to water and sanitation, sustainable energy and climate change. All over the world they are major agents for environmental action, prompting others to work on the basis of the linkages of environmental sustainability, gender equality and poverty reduction.

1. Seager, Joni and Betsy Hartmann, 2005. Mainstreaming Gender in Environmental Assessment and Early Warning. UNEP/ DEWA, Nairobi. 2. Turner, Nancy, 2003. Passing on the News: women’s work, traditional knowledge and plant resource management in Indigenous Societies of North-western North America. In: Patricia Howard (eds). Women and Plants. Zed Books, London. p.133-149. 3. UNEP/IT, 1999. Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. A Complementary Contribution to the Global Biodiversity Assessment. Intermediate Technology Publications, London. 4. Johnson, Victoria, Joanna Hill and Edda Ivan-Smith, 1994. Listening to Smaller Voices: children in an environment of change. ActionAid, London.

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