Women’s Vital Connection with Environment

Men and women relate differently to the environment, making it necessary to take into account the linkage between gender and environment while assessing and assigning their different roles.

The woman is important and plays an essential part in all societies around the living conditions, environment and development. Women play a significant role in the management of natural resources, including soil, water, forests and energy…and often have a profound traditional and contemporary knowledge of the natural world around them.

Therefore women, who interact with natural resources for want of survival, feel the impact of environmental degradation more acutely. The relationship between women and environment attains significance because women are perceived as victims of environmental degradation.

Precisely, women have two main vital links with the environment. At the one hand, women are traditionally the custodians of nature and protect environment for generations due to their usual motherly character in the society. In fact women are closer to nature than men are. This closeness, therefore, makes women more nurturing and caring towards their environment. Also, women’s consciousness of ecological issues makes them better managers of natural resources. This association between women and natural resources exists because of their social and economic roles, which requires them to provide food, fuel, fodder and income for the surrounding resource base.

On the other hand, the degradation of these natural resources has a disproportionate affect on them. Hence women suffer most of the burden of risk when a natural disaster (floods, drought) occurs due to changing world climates.

 

Recognition of Role of Women in Environment – Whereas women were previously neglected or ignored, there have recently been increasing attention paid to the impact of women on the natural environment and, in return, the effects the environment has on the health and well-being of women. It is now widely acknowledged that the gender-environment relations have valuable ramifications with regard to the understanding of nature between men and women, the management and distribution of resources and responsibilities and the day-to-day life and well being of people.

 

The Earth Summit / UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 clearly acknowledged the important role which women need to play in regard to sustainable development. Chapter 24 of Agenda 21 emphasizes gender mainstreaming and outlines the necessary increased involvement of women at all levels of decision-making.

 

Of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), seven are related to concrete actions to achieve gender equality as an indispensable way to achieve sustainable development. The goal seven is particularly aimed at ensuring environmental sustainability and achieving the three goals to achieve that goal.

 

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) and the 2005 World Summit recognized the essential role women play in sustainable development. In its recent follow-up to the Beijing Platform for Action, the General Assembly highlighted the need to “involve women actively in environmental decision-making at all levels; integrate gender concerns and perspectives in policies and programs for sustainable development; and strengthen or establish mechanisms at the national, regional and international levels to assess the impacts of development and environmental policies on women”.

 

At its 46th session in 2002, the Commission on the Status of Women took up climate change issues when it addressed environmental management and the mitigation of natural disasters. The agreed conclusions adopted by the Commission called for action to mainstream a gender perspective into ongoing research by, inter-alia, the academic sector on the impact of climate change, including the root causes, and to encourage the application of the results of this research in policies and programs (para 7(c)).

 

Women and Natural Disasters – Women make up a large number of the poor in communities of Pakistan that are highly dependent on local natural resources for their livelihood and are also disproportionately vulnerable to the fallout of climate change. Women’s limited access to resources and decision-making processes increases their vulnerability to climate change. Women in rural areas have the major responsibility for household water supply and energy for cooking and heating, as well as for food security, and are negatively affected by drought, uncertain rainfall, floods and deforestation.

 

Women are not only victims of climate change, but also effective agents of change in relation to both mitigation and adaptation. It is important to identify gender-sensitive strategies for responding to the environmental and humanitarian crises caused by climate change. Women have a strong body of knowledge and expertise that can be used in climate change mitigation, disaster reduction and adaptation strategies. Women’s responsibilities in households and communities as stewards of natural resources has positioned them well for livelihood strategies adapted  to changing environmental realities. Women tend, however, to be underrepresented in decision making on sustainable development, including on climate change, and this impedes their ability to contribute their unique and valuable perspectives and expertise on climate change.

 

Women in Pakistan, for instance, are already on the front line of adapting to climate change, with increasing floods and droughts impacting upon their livelihoods. As pivotal managers of natural and environmental resources and key frontline implementers of development, women have the experience and knowledge to build the resilience of their communities to the intensifying natural hazards to come.

 

But without the full participation and contribution of women in decision-making and leadership, real community resilience to climate change and disasters simply cannot be achieved.  In too many places, women are still marginalized from community discussions about development planning. Real community-based development must involve the knowledge and energy of women, men, boys and girls.

 

The Moral & Recommendations In the face of a growing realization of the crucial role played by women in environmental management and at the same time their exclusion from the decision making processes and access to resources, the moral here is that “where ever the natural resources are being utilized for any economic or industrial development, the environment degradation can be halted by strengthening the role of women at all levels of decision making in public, private and the corporate sector.

 

Unequal gender relations, over-time, have created unequal power dynamics that put women at a disadvantage, which had in fact become an obstacle to promoting sustainable environmental practices. However, it is important to recognize women as transmitters of cultural values to preserve the environment.

 

It is high time to integrate gender/women’s right and role into environmental concerns, policies and programs. In reality, until recently, development efforts in the country did not take into account the condition of women and this led to the neglect of women in planning and development. There is urgent need for incorporation of gender perspectives in development planning, more especially with regards to environment, agriculture, forests, land management, water resources, climate change, disaster risk management, energy, sanitation, waste management, and chemical management, etc.

 

The people responsible for making decisions and who are responsible for developing environmental policies are not aware or have received training from the perspective of gender. This gap needs to be filled urgently.

 

A number of policy measures need to be introduced which halt the discriminating practices that limit women’s access to land and other resources and to provide technologies to reduce women’s workload.  In the light of directives adopted in Agenda 21 as global action for women towards equitable development, the Pakistan Government is urged to take following measures:

 

  1. Adopt the 60-40 formula, that is, not more than 60% and not less than 40% of either sex in policy making leadership positions.
  2. Implement the strategies for the advancement of women, especially with regard to women’s participation in natural ecosystem management and control of environmental degradation.
  3. Increase the proportion of women decision makers, planners, advisors, and managers relating to environmental management.
  4. Consider developing a strategy to eliminate various obstacles—constitutional, legal, administrative, socio-economic, to women’s access and use of natural resources.
  5. Establish mechanisms at the regional, national and international levels to assess impact of development and environmental policies and programs on women.
  6. Promote dissemination of gender relevant knowledge and valuation of women’s roles through formal and non-formal education.
  7. Implement measures to ensure that men and women have the same right to decide on reproduction and have access to information to exercise this right.
  8. Undertake programs to reduce the workload of women and promote provision of environmentally sound technologies, designed and developed in consultation with women.
  9. Facilitate access to all forms of credit, property rights and agricultural inputs and implements.
  10. Provide equal employment opportunities and equal remuneration.
  11. Develop gender sensitive databases on women’s knowledge and experience of management and conservation of environmental resources, the impact of structural adjustment program on women, impact of environmental degradation on women and analysis of structural linkages between gender relations, environment and development.
  12. Any policy measure working towards conservation of environment or promoting development should be in harmony with women’s needs and well being.

Author:Tahir Hasnain is a veteran researcher and development practitioner serving the non-government development sector since two decades. Currently he works for Shirkat Gah as Programme Manager, Environment & Livelihood. He can be contacted at – tahir@khi.sgah.org.pk

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