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HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2004: Population and the Environment
State of World Population
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Population and the Environment

Population’s Impact on Resource Use
Poverty and Ecological Stress
Gender Dimensions of Environmental Change

Gender Dimensions of Environmental Change

In the developing world in particular, gender plays a strong role in how resources are used and developed. Women and girls often spend hours each week fetching water for domestic use, for example; when water supplies are erratic, it is they who suffer the greatest consequences.(10) In Sudan, where deforestation has quadrupled the amount of time women spend gathering wood for cooking, the energy used to tote water and fuel accounts for one third of a woman’s daily calorie intake, according to the World Health Organization.(11)

Rights to natural resources are often heavily biased. Few women own property (in some countries they are legally prohibited from doing so) and few are involved in high-level decision-making on the environment. For the most part, men are still largely responsible for deciding how the world’s natural resources are used through industry, mining, livestock grazing and land tenure.

Development agencies still offer technical assistance mainly to men, even in places where women are the ones toting the wood and water and tilling the soil. When government officials or community leaders fail to recognize the different ways women use resources—growing vegetables for family consumption in the spaces between male-managed cash crops, for example—the resources are easily destroyed.(12)

But when women are included in natural resource management, the results can be dramatic.

When a water project that excluded women in the Kirinyaga district of Kenya failed, local women formed the Kugeria Women’s Group and asked the Ministry of Water Development to help them gain access to safe, affordable sources of water. Their efforts have brought water to 300 families, improved sanitation, and increased agricultural production. The women have also become community leaders, working to build a clinic and provide access to reproductive health and family planning services.(13)


Before the ICPD, many policy makers tended to view “development” in the restricted sense of economic growth, measured by gross national product. Prescriptions for development were often confined to an economic agenda involving investment, trade negotiations, infrastructure construction and monetary aid. Considerations such as gender equality and equity, health, education and the state of the environment were treated as secondary if addressed at all.

Ten years after the Cairo conference, there is much greater recognition that good stewardship of the environment, people’s health and the status of women are all interconnected and bear on the speed and breadth of a country’s development. True development must improve the lives of individuals.

Some demographers and scholars concerned with population-development relationships and the environment contend the Cairo conference over-emphasized sexual and reproductive health services and played down the macro-level relationships between population growth and the environment, the economy, poverty reduction, education and housing.

Such criticism is unwarranted. Cairo recognized that promoting individual rights with regard to sexual and reproductive health would lead to macro-level progress as well—that meeting expressed desires and ensuring people’s right to chose the number, timing and spacing of their children would slow rapid population growth, without resorting to demographic targets. Indeed, enabling health systems to meet individuals’ needs and wishes in a more client-friendly manner could even accelerate family planning use.

DEVELOPING INTEGRATED APPROACHES. Following Agenda 21 and the ICPD, there has been greater international attention to women’s stewardship of natural resources, including efforts to integrate reproductive health and family planning into conservation programmes. Some environmental groups have developed partnerships with population organizations. For example, Conservation International has teamed up with family planning NGOs and the Mexican Social Security Institute to expand access to reproductive health care including family planning, and to halt the clearing of forests in and around the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

In the mountainous provinces of central Ecuador, where women do not have access to reproductive health services and soil erosion is widespread, World Neighbors has joined with a local NGO, the Centre for Medical Guidance and Family Planning, to deliver reproductive health care and to promote improvements in local management of natural resources to over 4,000 families.

In March 2002 in Helsinki, women environment ministers and representatives from 19 industrial and developing countries met with women’s NGOs and issued a statement calling for: equal rights for women in access to and control of natural resources, including land tenure; policies that involve women in decisions about resource use; better consumer education on the environmental impacts of products; and the development of “policies, legislation and strategies towards gender balance in environmental protection and in the distribution of its benefits”.(14)

POLICY CHANGES. At the policy level, many countries, drawing on recommendations of the ICPD, its fifth-year review, the Millennium Summit and the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development, have emphasized the linkages among population dynamics, sustainable development and environmental protection.

In Azerbaijan, for example, the State Programme on Poverty Reduction and Economic Development takes into account population and environment interrelationships; promotes public education on environmental issues that directly affect population groups; works to monitor environmental impacts of policies at the local and community levels; and emphasizes the protection and preservation of the environment as both a source and an outcome of sustained economic growth.

In the Seychelles, two comprehensive environment management plans have been developed over the past decade that integrate population and development. The latest plan, covering 2000-2010, focuses on urbanization, water management, population and health, gender, environmental economics and sustainable financing.

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