The Environment Is a Women's Issue

When women aren't allowed to shape policy, decisions about the environment often affect them in disproportionate and negative ways. Only when women take part in these decisions will their lives improve.

Justine Sass

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-In parts of India, women are typically responsible for collecting water for their households. In times of scarcity, however, drought-ridden villages are supplied with water by truck every few days. On these days, it is men who decide who goes home with the rationed water.

In El Tamarindo, El Salvador, where women fish to feed their families, coastal-management officials didn't consult them before restricting use of estuaries to save fragile mangroves-even though women were far more affected by the decision than the community's men, who fish in the open seas.

Next Monday's Earth Day is a time to reflect on these practices, which demonstrate the need to bring women into decision-making on the environment. Their participation is crucial, especially in the developing world, where women have little say but are frequently negatively affected by environmental policy changes. Deforestation, water scarcity, soil degradation and exposure to agricultural and industrial chemicals and organic pollutants: all can impact women's workloads, nutrition and health and the health and well-being of their families.

Impacts of Environmental Degradation on Women

In much of the developing world, women participate in economic activities like farming, fishing, selling fruits and produce, and are additionally responsible for domestic tasks like cooking, gathering wood for fuel, hauling water, nurturing and caring for children and tending to elderly members of the household. Given the wide range of women's daily interactions with the environment to meet household needs, they are often those most keenly affected by its degradation.

The amount of time and energy women spend on household duties can dramatically increase as resources are depleted. For women, deforestation makes it more difficult to collect wild herbs, fruits and natural medicines, or fuel wood for cooking and boiling water. When women must travel further distances and take more time to collect fuel wood and water, girls are often taken out of school to assist.

The energy used to carry water may consume one-third of a woman's daily calorie intake, according to estimates by Mayling Simpson-Hebert, a technical officer at the World Health Organization. In areas where water is in particularly short supply, women use even more energy, putting them at risk of malnutrition and reducing their economic productivity.

A family's diet may also suffer when wood shortages force households to economize on fuel by shifting to less nutritious foods that can be eaten raw; by eating partially cooked food that can prove toxic; by eating leftovers that rot in a tropical climate; or by skipping meals altogether. Women and girls suffer the most in places where they eat last and least.

Exposure to certain agricultural and industrial chemicals and organic pollutants increases women's vulnerability in pregnancy and childbirth. In a study conducted in 1993 for the World Health Organization, researchers in the Sudan found that 22 percent of hospital stillbirths were linked to expectant mothers' pesticide exposure.

Women's Voices are Essential to Environmental Planning

Around the world, women's lack of representation in government limits their influence over governance and public policies. Worldwide, women held only 14 percent of seats in parliaments in 2000, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. And though women are keenly affected by environmental degradation, they are scarcely involved in environmental policy at local and national levels. This limited participation means that women's perspectives, needs, knowledge and proposed solutions are often ignored.

Failure to take into account women's activities and to include them in the decision-making process can lead to policies-such as the Salvadoran example-that criminalize women's activities without meeting their needs. After local officials limited the use of estuaries there, Salvadoran women decided that household survival was more important than possible penalties and continued fishing and gathering fuel wood secretly in the restricted areas.

Women need official channels to reflect their needs and to give them a voice in environmental decision-making.

“More often than not, women are not associated with discussions on the environment,” says Lorena Aguilar, a senior gender advisor for the World Conservation Union, a network of government agencies, non-government organizations, scientists and environmental experts working around the world to conserve natural resources, protect biodiversity and to promote equitable and sustainable development.

“There are no activities where natural resources are used and women are not directly or indirectly involved,” Aguilar says. “If women harvest, if they process meat from the wild, if they are involved in pastoral activities, if they prepare and market fish, why should they be then excluded in decision-making around these issues?” Several countries have attempted to bring more women into the decision-making process by setting aside seats specifically for them within national and local governments.

“It's critical today to create a mass of female leaders and quotas are the fastest way to ensure that the process is at least started,” Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, said at the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

But quotas aren't the only answer. Women need better training, better education and greater power and authority to be involved from the outset in planning, implementing and evaluating policies and programs.

The World Bank recently decided to rate all of its projects for their effects on women and girls, as studies have shown that gender equality reduces poverty, supports economic growth, encourages good governance and promotes better quality of life.

Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, sees another benefit: “Advancing gender equality, through reversing the various social and economic handicaps that make women voiceless and powerless, may also be one of the best ways of saving the environment,” Sen said in a 2000 article on population and gender equity in The Nation.

Last month, 22 women ministers of the environment and women leaders of 28 international governmental and non-governmental organizations met in Helsinki, Finland to make sure that women have a voice in environmental decision-making at the Johannesburg 2002: The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

These leaders drafted a declaration with concrete recommendations for the World Summit on themes of globalization, poverty and the environment. It asks world leaders to recognize that to develop sustainable solutions to environmental problems, the voice of both women and men must be heard.

“We have to see through a different kind of lens,” says Aguilar of the World Conservation Union. “This will help people understand that conservation and development involves everybody and that it must be fair for it to be sustainable.”

Justine Sass is a policy analyst at the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit organization that provides timely and objective information on U.S. and international population trends and their implications. She is the author of the bureau's policy brief, “Women, Men and Environmental Change: The Gender Dimensions of Environmental Policies and Programs.”

For more information:

Population Reference Bureau:

Johannesburg 2002
The World Summit on Sustainable Development:

The Council for Women World Leaders: