The State of World Population 2001 The State of World Population 2001
Chapter 4: Women and the Environment

United Nations Population Fund

"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, and countering the dangers of overcrowding and other adversities associated with population pressure. The voice of women is critically important for the world's future—not just for women's future."

-Amartya Sen1

The direct and critical relationship between women and natural resources draws its strength not from biology—that is, not because women are born female—but from gender, and the socially created roles and responsibilities that continue to fall to women in households, communities and ecosystems throughout the world.

Shehzad Noorani, Still Pictures
Bangladeshi woman cooks with crop residue. Indoor air pollution kills more than 2.2 million people each year in developing countries.

Women have primary responsibility for rearing children, and for ensuring sufficient resources to meet children's needs for nutrition, health care and schooling. In the rural areas of developing countries, they are also the main managers of essential household resources like clean water, fuel for cooking and heating and fodder for domestic animals. Women grow vegetables, fruit and grain for home consumption and also for sale—often, as in much of Africa, producing most of the staple crops. In South-east Asia, women provide 90 per cent of the labour for rice cultivation.

Women are more than half (51 per cent) of the world's agricultural work force.2 As economic opportunities open up, women in developing countries are growing, processing and marketing non-food products made from natural resources, for consumption at home and, increasingly, overseas.

In Burkina Faso, for example, women are producing hundreds of tons of shea butter each year, selling much of it to European cosmetic markets.3 In Colombia, thousands of female workers are tending flowers for sale in the United States. But such livelihoods can also present new environmental and health risks: it is estimated that flower workers in Colombia are exposed to 127 different types of chemicals, many of which have been banned in the United States and the United Kingdom.4

Many of these activities take place in the interstices of men's use of resources. Women occupy niches allowed by traditional gender structures or opened up by economic and social change. In coastal Mozambique, women are not allowed to come close to the boats men use for ocean fishing, or to do such fishing themselves, although they process and market the men's catch. Their aquatic space is close to the shore, where they harvest and sell shellfish, crabs and other small sea creatures—women's work that provides about 20 per cent of average monthly household income according to a recent study.5

As poverty persists and, in many parts of the world, deepens, women's income from such activities becomes critical to family survival—reinforcing the importance of the environment in women's lives (and increasing the dangers posed by degraded environments). In the growing number of female-headed households, this work is essential, particularly for children; women already head almost a quarter of rural households in the world's poorest countries.6Women's income can also create the conditions for expanded opportunities, choices and autonomy—all of which advance the larger goal of gender equity and equality.

How Environmental Degradation Affects Women

Women have the responsibility for managing household resources, but they typically do not have managerial control. Given the variety of women's daily interactions with the environment, they are the most keenly affected by its degradation. For example:

Erik Just, Denmark
Woman collects garbage in Mali dump. Women face a variety of health risks from toxic chemicals in the air, water and earth.
  • Deforestation or contamination increases the time women must spend seeking fuelwood or safe, clean water, and increase women's risk of water-borne disease. In the state of Gujurat, India, women now spend four or five hours a day collecting fuelwood, where previously they would have done so once every four to five days.7
  • Soil erosion, water shortage and crop failures reduce harvest yields; soil exhausted from over-use reduces the productivity of household gardens.
  • Toxic chemicals and pesticides in air, water and earth are responsible for a variety of women's health risks. They enter body tissues and breast milk, through which they are passed on to infants.8 In a village in China's Gansu province, discharges from a state-run fertilizer factory have been linked to a high number of stillbirths and miscarriages. Water pollution in three Russian rivers is a factor in the doubling of bladder and kidney disorders in pregnant women, and in Sudan a link has been established between exposure to pesticides and perinatal mortality—with the risk higher among women farmers.9
  • In urban settings in particular, air and water pollution can be extreme, and sanitation and waste treatment poor or non-existent, presenting new threats to health, particularly for women, who have the highest levels of exposure. In the Indian cities of Delhi and Agra, for example, drinking water comes from rivers heavily polluted by DDT and other pesticides.10 

Degraded environments mean that women must spend more time and effort to find fuel or produce food, but their other responsibilities, for meeting household needs and ensuring family health, do not diminish. Gendered divisions of labour have so far resisted real change. In many countries, women already work 12 hours or more a day in and out of the home; in Africa and Asia, women work an average of 13 hours more each week than do men.11

Powerlessness and Its Impact

At the same time, women have little power over the conditions of their lives. Decision makers often overlook this reality, even though women's use and management of local environmental resources is fundamental to household and community well-being.12 Agricultural extension services are heavily biased towards men. Education and outreach efforts in support of sustainable farming and land management methods often pass them by.

National law or local customs often effectively deny women the right to secure title or inherit land, which means they have no collateral on which to raise credit. Poverty, precarious land tenure and lack of expert support discourage women from investing in newer technologies or long-term strategies such as crop rotation, fallow periods, sustainable levels of cultivation or reforestation. On the contrary, these factors encourage fast-growing cash crops such as cotton, which quickly exhaust the land, and woodland clearance for short-term income.

Such pressures on limited land resources deplete nutrients and degrade soils. Land degradation reduces yields, leading to a spiral of more intensive use, further degradation and still lower yields. Farmers may seek new land, but often find it only in frontier or marginal areas, especially if they are women and cannot close a sale or negotiate a loan.

In the worst-affected countries, HIV/AIDS has increased poverty and decreased choices, forcing people to fall back on natural resources to meet basic needs. In South Africa, large numbers of poor people, particularly women, are trying to produce food and fuel on marginal lands, increasing the pressure on fragile ecosystems.13

Unsustainable land use can often be traced to denial of technical and financial resources. Given the opportunity, women may well have a predisposition to practice sustainable agriculture and maintain overall land quality—precisely because of their strong reliance on natural resources. A World Bank study in Ghana found that women's plots had a lower rate of decline in soil fertility than men's—even in the same household.14

In India, women are leading rural movements to promote sustainable farming practices and resist large-scale agricultural operations that rely on intensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And in the United Kingdom, where farming is male-dominated, half of all organic farmers are women—10 times the proportion in the farming industry overall.15

Women who lack rights to own and manage natural resources often lack rights in other aspects of their lives, reinforcing gender inequalities. Like millions of women throughout the world, women in the strongly patriarchal rural communities of south-east Madagascar have no access to the resources that bring status—property, cattle and farmland. As a result, they have little part in community or household decisions. This includes decisions about reproduction (fertility is high), marriage (early marriage is common) and education for themselves and their children (education rates for boys are low and for girls lower still).16

In the past, large families were common in rural communities: children were important to agricultural productivity (especially on large land tracts), often joining their mothers (and at times fathers) in fields or household gardens, tending domestic animals and assisting with household resource needs—fetching water, and foraging for fuelwood and edible and medicinal plants. Rural women married young and had many pregnancies.

One legacy of high fertility, lower infant mortality and a limited supply of land is fragmentation.17As they passed from one generation of sons to another, plots were divided again and again. Eventually the plots were simply not big enough to provide enough food for family or market. Pressures to increase yields have intensified, and men have left in search of non-farm employment. Without them, women's family burdens and responsibilities have increased, though urban relatives often send money to improve the remaining land, as well as for housing, education and health care.

Urbanization offers a series of risks and opportunities to women. Urban growth and poverty produces new environmental threats that increase health risks. Again, those most exposed are women and their children.18

On the other hand, pregnancy and childbirth are generally safer in urban areas, where health care is more likely to be accessible. City life also offers women a broader range of choices for education, employment and marriage, but it also carries heightened risk of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation. For poor women, urbanization means less physical labour to find fuel, food and water, but they often lose direct control over quality or quantity. For the very poor, these basic resources are more expensive—in absolute as well as relative terms—than for better-off groups. In environmental terms, what urbanization offers the poor with one hand, it takes away with the other. The very poor in urban areas, for example those who live on and off garbage dumps, are arguably the most deprived on the planet, in human as well as economic terms.

As women join the migration from rural to urban areas, they are vulnerable to economic and sexual exploitation—sweatshop labour, trafficking, abuse or violence; factory workers face possible exposure to chemicals, dust or other forms of pollution.

Along with the risks, however, go new economic opportunities. Freedom from the social and gender hierarchies of rural communities may also open up chances to go to school, college or university, to acquire marketable skills and to choose whether, when and whom to marry. Urban women are more likely to be able to decide when, if and how many children to bear, both because of changing gender relations and because they have easier access to reproductive health information and services.

To be effective managers of household and other resources, both rural and urban women need a range of options: choices over family size and spacing; health care, including reproductive health; education; and partnership with men. There are many examples of programmes to empower women that reinforce both their management of resources and their reproductive health. Extension programmes can typically provide aspects of reproductive health care together with information and assistance for resources management.

Involving Women in Environmental and Health Decisions

Sustainable development demands recognition and value for the multitude of ways in which women's lives intertwine with environmental realities. Women's right to own and inherit land should be enforced; individual and communal security of land tenure should be guaranteed; women should have access to credit, and to agricultural extension and resource management services, and they should be included in decisions about the services' organization and content.

Proportion of Girls Entering and Completing Primary School, by Subregion

Women's involvement must extend to information, education and services for reproductive health and rights. Choice about fertility is a step towards equality: women thus empowered can intervene in other decisions in the household and the community, for example, education and health care for girl children; the use of common resources and the development of economic opportunities. Women's involvement in health and environmental decisions works to the benefit of individuals, society and the environment itself.

In fact, as a growing body of experience shows, reproductive health and environmental services can work very profitably together, if they are designed to meet communities' own priorities. Integration eliminates the need to duplicate outreach, and responds to women's interrelated needs.

Trust is key in such efforts: in one Latin American project, a female staff member of an environmental organization who developed considerable rapport with local village residents was inundated with requests for reproductive health information and care. At the same time, a government health worker without similar rapport received few such requests. Not surprisingly, studies have also found that the most critical element of the success of integrated reproductive health and environmental services is the active engagement of women.19

Shifting environmental conditions can begin new and more intense gender conflicts, but can also bring opportunities for women and men to negotiate gender equality.

For example, in Newfoundland, Canada, the collapse of North Atlantic fish stocks has brought mass unemployment to communities that once relied almost wholly on fish. Before the crisis, men did the fishing and women worked in fish processing plants. But with men and women both at home during the day, domestic conflict increased. Women wanted more help in the house, but also felt invaded; men often felt emasculated by their demands. Alcohol use and conflict with men outside the home also increased. Young women began to see husbands and boyfriends as undesirable, the number of female-headed households rose, and levels of migration for both women and men, especially those with more education, increased significantly.20

A more positive response to a changed environment can be seen among salt miners in Bilma, Niger. For hundreds of years, large numbers of men crisscrossed the Sahara for months at a time, transporting and trading salt for fruit, grain and gold. In recent years, the value of salt has fallen and lorries have taken over much of the trade from camels, forcing most men into a more sedentary existence. In response, men and women have created new forms of partnership. Many women now work alongside their husbands scooping salt from pits—something not possible a generation ago. In those days, when a father died his daughters could not maintain his pits; boys or men were required. But today, when a woman marries she can join her new husband in the mine. Several couples also mine together, and the salt miners even include unmarried women.21

Environmental change imposes new stresses and choices on women's and men's lives. Evolution in gender roles induced by environmental change can mean better communication and shared decision-making; but negotiating new roles and responsibilities can be a painful process. It is important to maximize social flexibility and the resources women and men can bring to negotiations with each other and with the natural world.

Forging New Relationships

Successful negotiation between women and men will be helped by having access to information and education, and to agricultural and reproductive health services. The support of laws and policies on women's rights and equality and on the sustainable use and protection of natural resources are also essential. With such support women and men can create a virtuous circle of sustainability and equity. Without it they are trapped in a vicious spiral of continuing environmental degradation, poverty, high fertility and limited opportunity, leading to environmental and social collapse.

Erik Just, Denmark
Girl in Mali watches while the women cook. Support for women's rights can break the cycle of poverty, powerlessness and environmental degradation.

Women's groups are organizing to integrate women fully into the political process, so they can take their full part in making policy decisions affecting their lives, including policies on: the use of land and water resources for agriculture; power, drinking water and energy supply; health and education services; and economic opportunities. In many countries, they are succeeding.

A successful outcome will depend on forging new relationships between women and the environment, and between women and the world at large. Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan environmentalist and founder of the Green Belt Movement, which works with women in 20 countries to plant trees. As she suggests, such social and ecological transformations are well under way: "Implicit in the action of planting trees," she says, "is a civic education, a strategy to empower people and to give them a sense of taking their destiny into their own hands, removing their fear so they can stand up for their environmental rights. So that they [women] can control the direction of their own lives." 22

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