Rural women are affected differently, and often more severely than men, by polluted environment and modern agricultural technologies. Factors that increase the intensity of vulnerability of rural women to environmental issues are gender-based discrimination against women; unequal power relations between women and men including in access to assets and resources; and intra-household inequities.
Rural women’s work is getting harder and more time-consuming due to on-going environment degradation, climate change and economic crisis. Women have recently been facing lots of health problems and most of them are linked to environment and modern agricultural technology.
In Pakistan, almost three-quarters of the population reside in rural areas and are dependent mainly on agriculture. Close to 95 percent of the farmers are small, very poor and the agriculture provides them merely the subsistence.
Rural women, accounting for about half of the population, play a fundamental role in agriculture besides taking care of their homes and family. Surveys have revealed that a rural woman works for about 12 to 15 hours a day. Their farm activities include livestock rearing, milking, cutting fodder, chopping fodder, seed saving, crop harvesting, picking, storage of farm-produce, taking post-harvest care, etc. Similarly, their family maintenance activities include transporting water, fuel wood and fodder to and from home; food preparation and preservation; and caring of children and the elderly and disabled members of the household.
Women provide subsistence to their families through utilization of natural resources. Change in the surrounding environment, increase in pollution and the depletion of natural resources as a result of different natural and anthropogenic activities is impacting women, their health and livelihood.
Chemicals and other substances in the environment can cause serious health problems in women, such as cancer, lung disease, or reproductive system problems. They can also make health conditions worse. Scientists have confirmed that toxins (from pesticides) in the environment play a role in conditions such as breast cancer, endometriosis, and menopause.
Exposure to some toxic substances — including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, pesticides, solvents, and household chemicals — can increase the risk of miscarriage, preterm birth, and other pregnancy complications. These toxins can also harm the developing bodies of fetuses and infants. Women who are pregnant or nursing or who plan to become pregnant should take special care to avoid exposure to certain chemicals discussed here.
Pollutants in the environment can contribute to some illnesses that are more common in older adults. Indoor and outdoor air pollution can aggravate the symptoms of cardiovascular and lung diseases, including high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma. These conditions are more common in women over the age of 50 than in men over 50.
Older women may be more susceptible to the health effects of toxic chemicals. People who are exposed to pollutants over the course of a lifetime may have health problems when they are older. For instance, long-term exposure to pesticides may cause cancer or dementia.
Lead is a toxic metal that may be stored in bones. In postmenopausal women who were exposed to lead early in life, bone loss can release lead into the bloodstream. This may cause kidney damage, increase the risk of high blood pressure, and decrease cognitive functions.
Many types of environmental exposures are more harmful for children than for adults because (1) children eat, breathe, and drink more than adults do relative to their body weight, and children take in higher concentrations of any toxins in their food, water, or air; (2) as organs develop, they are more likely to be damaged by exposure to toxins; (3) the ways that toxins are removed from the body are not fully developed in children; (4) children spend more time outdoors, where they may be exposed to outdoor air pollution and ultraviolet radiation; (5) children do more intense physical activity, causing them to breathe air pollutants more deeply into their lungs; and young children tend to put their hands, dirt, or objects into their mouths.
Shirkat Gah – a pioneer civil society organization in Pakistan, over the time, has been highlighting environmental issues that impact women in different ways. Shirkat Gah has recently conducted an action research to study the implications of changing weathers and climate change on the life rural women in Sindh. The study has revealed that apart from serious implications of climate change, shifts in agriculture technologies and increased use of synthetic pesticides/fertilizers has increased the vulnerability of women.
Shirkat Gah, in another environment campaign throughout Pakistan, conducted Environment Orientation Sessions with rural communities in order to register local environmental problems and their implications on rural women. The objective of this initiative was to give community members an orientation on local environment, identify issues linked with women and assess the capacity on environmental knowledge of the local community and the Core Partners of Shirkat Gah for better planning in future.
So far, following common environmental issues have been emerged out of above mentioned Environment Orientation Sessions:
- Health effects due to use of chemical pesticides/fertilizers
- Polluted drinking water
- Waste & sanitation issues
- Indoor pollution & energy (fuel for cooking/heating) issues
Shirkat Gah, as a follow up, has produced a dossier based on solutions to community based environmental issues in Pakistan that focuses on environmental health and safety of rural women. Awareness sessions and networking meetings will soon be conducted in areas where this study has been conducted in order to build the capacity of local communities, especially rural women, to cope with environment based health problems.
There could be so many options available at the policy level as well as and community’s point that could help reduce vulnerability rural women to polluted environment and side-effects of modern agricultural technologies.
Community members, at the local level, should be made aware of environmental issues of their areas, its linkages with their health and regarding coping strategies which they follow in their local ways. Farmers, both male and female, should also learn environment friendly agricultural methods and use chemical pesticides or fertilizers with extreme care.
Shirkat Gah, as mentioned above, is compiling a report to suggest local tangible solutions to rural communities, more especially rural women, as against the common environmental issues. Other civil society organizations should also take this role forward and help reduce the plight rural women in Pakistan.
At the policy level, the Government of Pakistan should adopt agricultural policies that do pollute or degrade environment. Traditional farming methods are recognized as healthy and environment friendly; so that should be revived in its improved form as compared to new agricultural technologies that pollute environment and degrade soil and ground water.
The Government should mobilize its state departments i.e. Agriculture Extension Offices, to be in touch with small farmers and convey them environment friendly technologies and procedures.
Private companies dealing with chemical pesticides and fertilizers (otherwise poisons) enjoy a free hand to network with farmers all over the country and sell their chemical poisons that have severe impact on environment, climate change and directly on the health of farmers. It is recommended that these companies should not be allowed to contact farmers directly. Government should recommend and distribute safe chemical inputs through its Agriculture Extension Offices followed by training of farmers regarding its safe application in the agricultural fields.
Decentralization policy and the local government system has been a good for underdeveloped rural communities. It is recommended that the local government system should be revitalized and strengthened so that rural communities may also enjoy civic facilities related to sanitation, safe solid waste disposal, and alternate energy options.
NOTE – This article was written in view of International Rural Women Day 2012 on 15th October in order to show solidarity with rural women in Pakistan.
Author: Tahir Hasnain is a veteran researcher, writer and development practitioner serving the non-government development sector since two decades. Currently he works with Shirkat Gah as Programme Manager, Environment & Livelihood. He can be contacted at – firstname.lastname@example.org