Half the World is Women

But Empowerment—and Environmental Progress—Are Lagging

On the Hindu festival day of Rakti in 2001, more than 100 women and men marched through monsoon rains to the Advani forest. Led by Bachchni Devi, a woman who had organized movements to protect the forest from logging 30 years before, the group now faced a tougher challenge; the Power Grid Corporation of India. The Corporation wanted to install a dam and had hired contractors to remove the very trees that had been physically protected (through literal tree hugging) by groups of women in non-violent civil disobedience during the protest’s early days in the 1970s. Devi said then, "We did not protect these trees so many years ago, only to see them cut now!"

The Chipko Movement has not only protected trees in the local forest, but has spread to other parts of the country and forced a review of the country’s forest policy (resulting in tree-cutting restrictions in the Himalayan region). Following that success, an anti-mining movement was initiated, which kept mining contractors away from ecologically fragile zones.

In Mumena, Zambia, a town of 87 families, solar panels have bypassed coal-burning power plants and provide energy enough to power community buildings. In India, the Barefoot Solar Engineers are groups of illiterate women who have been trained to make electronic circuits and chargers for solar panels, and install and maintain hand pumps, water tanks and pipelines. A six-month workshop teaches young women how to bring solar energy to their communities, enabling irrigation facilities, schools, shops and the medical centers to be open in the evening. Twenty-six-year-old Ritma Bharti, one of the engineers, says, "I always dreamt of doing something big for my society. Today my family, my neighbors, and even the village elders respect me and value my contributions. It feels wonderful."

The interconnection between environmental awareness and better lives for poor women is clear. Women the world over, in developing nations on every continent, are working to protect the environment and improve their lives—proving that the two are not mutually exclusive.

In the name of development, China, India, South Africa, the Philippines and many other countries are following the same environmentally destructive path as the U.S. and Western Europe. In China, the use of smog-producing cars and trucks is rising with income levels. The competition between the millions of smog-free bicycles ridden to work and the increasing numbers of cars on the road has led to the banning of bikes in Shanghai (and overwhelming the movements in smaller countries like Denmark and Sweden to get more people to commute to work on two wheels instead of four).

The assumption is that in order to achieve standards of living like those in the U.S., forests have to be destroyed, rivers polluted and ecosystems marginalized. But indigenous movements are challenging the notion that developing countries have to destroy the environment to lift their people out of poverty. With new technology and information gleaned from our environmental mistakes, some countries are realizing that it can’t be called "progress" unless it’s also sustainable. The world’s women are on the forefront of making this ideal a reality.

The Case for Gender Equity

While it might seem to many that feeding and assuring basic healthcare to a community is more important than women’s rights, development experts say it’s almost impossible to make long-term gains to improve the lives of a community if women’s voices are marginalized. In several African irrigation programs, for example, the health of the community declined as water used by women for processing grains and growing food crops was directed away from villages, towards the cash crops tended almost exclusively by men.

Women’s daily work in developing countries involves everything from planting and harvesting food, collecting water and storing it for later use, caring for livestock, harvesting wood for cooking or building materials, caring for children, and growing and processing medicinal plants. Women are usually in charge of knowing when water is safe to drink and when it needs to be conserved due to scarcity.

Women farmers have tended to use and perfect traditional cropping methods developed over time to protect natural resources. They tend to employ traditional farming methods like rotating crops, mulching to prevent water evaporation, intercropping and fallowing to prevent erosion. Such techniques are important in places like Nnobi, Nigeria, where erosion-induced gashes have separated buildings within a compound, physically tearing a community apart. Women’s involvement with all aspects of agriculture has increased in recent years, specifically the aspects of agriculture that feed communities" basic needs. Biodiversity, family planning, pollution, and the health of food and water supplies—these are all mostly controlled by women.

According to Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, "It is clear that women have a central role as custodians of local and indigenous knowledge and as conservators of the natural world. It is also clear that their role and "know-how" is often undervalued and ignored. Indeed, all too often women are treated as second-class citizens with less rights and a reduced status in respect to men. It is high time that national and international policies reflect gender differences and give far greater weight to the empowerment of women."

Globalization and Privatization

Women lose power not only because of old prejudices and mores, but also because of current trends, like globalization, privatization and skewed economic development. June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), explains, "The whole trend toward privatization of natural resources, particularly water, has had a devastating effect on women."

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), much of women’s work—whether it’s planting and harvesting crops, collecting fuel wood, taking care of children or cooking food—is generally not counted in standard measures of a country’s economic status, since most of it is not done for pay. The agency argues, "Women are often thus neglected in development programs that focus on increasing income as a way to "develop" a country. Emphasis is placed on growing cash crops instead of crops for food." The FAO reports that this "increases the burden on women, who often have to work longer and harder to supply their families" needs. It often results in overuse of resources and degradation of the environment, and ultimately increases the poverty of many people even while the gross national product increases."

According to WEDO, women own less than one percent of land worldwide. This, combined with a lack of access to credit to buy land, means that female farmers have little incentive to protect the land they cultivate.

Water privatization forces the poorest of the poor to use a majority of their income to purchase clean water. In cash-strapped Bolivia, "La Guerra de Agua" was fought and won in 2000 due largely to agitation by female collectives. In 1999, the Bolivian government invited a multinational corporation, Aguas del Tunar

i, a subsidiary of Bechtel, to take over supplying water for the whole country in a 40-year contract. Immediately, water rates made it nearly impossible for poorer residents to make payments. Small farmers and the self-employed—a majority women—were especially hard-hit. In a country with an average monthly wage of $100, water bills could be $20 or more.

Carmen Pereda, a spokesperson for the group Co-ordinadora for the Defense of Water and Life, says, "When the issue about water started in 1994 in a village called Vinto outside Cochabomba, it was the women who organized and started to fight against the government. Later, I remember that whenever there were confrontations with the police, it was mostly women who were fighting back and getting arrested."

In 1992, some 1,500 women from 83 countries met at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and created the Women’s Action Agenda 21. Critical issues including governance, the environment, reproductive health and education were included in a plan that has since been used by women leaders to lobby the United Nations.

Other conferences followed, including the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which concluded, "Women have an essential role to play in the development of sustainable and ecologically sound consumption and production patterns and approaches to natural resource management." But Zeitlin cautions that positive statements are not enough. "There is a lot of recognition and commitment by governments and other institutions on paper," she says. "The translation into change at the local level is very varied."

The Urban Poor

The health of the urban poor is largely dependent on the condition of the land surrounding the cities they live in. In Manila, Philippines, logging projects outside the city have affected the water quality of the city’s drinking supply, especially as erosion around city reservoirs has rendered water unhealthy during flood times.

Public health in the world’s large cities is crucial because of spectacular population growth. Gustav Speth, dean of the Yale School of the Environment, writes, "Virtually all population growth in the next 30 years will be in urban areas. The urban poor often establish informal settlements in ecologically fragile areas; without sewers and garbage collection, wastes accumulate and degrade both land and water supplies."

Women’s responsibilities often include waste disposal. Improperly disposed human wastes can encourage the spread of disease, as can indiscriminate pesticide use in small urban plots. Forty percent of African and 50 percent of Latin American city-dwellers are involved in urban agriculture. Because women are expected to stay in or near the home, many engage in small-scale home factories, where exposures to local contaminants are unregulated.

When women do work outside the home, they often encounter sexual harassment and discrimination, and rape is not uncommon in countries from Uzbekistan to Indonesia. Ita Fatia Nadia started the Jakarta-based women’s advocacy organization Kalyanamitra to address women’s issues. "More women are now forced to seek employment to keep the family going and bear the rise in prices," says Nadia. "But there are still no laws to protect
women in Indonesia."

Many women also face grievous health risks at their jobs, and work long hours for low pay. In Bogota, Colombia, chemicals used in the greenhouses are carcinogens or toxins that have been restricted in the U.S. but are legal there. As a result, two-thirds of Colombia’s flower workers, mostly women, suffer from problems associated with pesticide exposure, ranging from nausea to miscarriages. One flower worker depicts her working life: "I knew poverty before but it was in the greenhouses that I learned what fear and humiliation meant. Here we have jobs but no dignity."

The Fight for Food and Clean Water

Thirty percent of women in Egypt walk over an hour a day to get water, and in other parts of Africa women and children spend up to eight hours procuring it; in East Africa the time spent getting water has doubled since 1990. The lack of water availability not only affects women’s productivity and health, but also the quality of their gardens, which is the only source of food in cases of crop failure and drought.

Rainwater harvesting is one of the most successful ways to increase local fresh water supply. Using special containers and the digging of mini-reservoirs or "earth pans," women can collect fresh and unpolluted water on their doorsteps rather than being forced to trek many miles. Masai women in Kenya have joined a wider international initiative funded by the Government of Sweden to train women in this technique.

Water-related diseases cause 80 percent of all the world’s sicknesses, in the forms of hepatitis A, malaria, diarrhea, dysentery and schistosomiasis. These illnesses take healthy women away from being able to raise food crops, and thus exacerbate poverty. To turn the situation around, women need to be involved. "It is now recognized that the exclusion of women from the planning of water and sanitation schemes is a major cause of their high failure rate," says the UN.

Women’s gardens are the source of up to 90 percent of the food eaten by indigenous people, and are often models of sustainable land use. They are typically dominated by perennial rather than annual plants and tended with mulch, manure and crop residues rather than industrial chemicals. A study in Nigeria found that women who grow intensive home gardens raise 18 to 57 different plant species, including tubers, legumes, vegetables, grains and fruit trees. In Sierra Leone, women could name 31 species of trees when men were only able to identify eight. "Women may practice more multiple cropping, plant more carefully and have more knowledge of local varieties than their husbands," according to a local Nigerian expert.

During the 1990s, the Seed-Saving Movement (SSM) was born, in which women banded together to save native seeds and tried to keep genetically modified and pesticide-dependent seeds out of their fields. Sudesha, a local SSM activist, says, "Men bring new seeds which ruin our agriculture, but women have always liked the traditional seeds."

New seed-planting technology finds more support among men who want to increase short-term cash returns, but women farmers say they are more concerned about the long-term effects of changing centuries-old practices. The experience of these movements has been that there is a strong gender aspect to the quest for sustainable development. Dhum Singh Negi, a senior activist with SSM, says, "Women have been the most enthusiastic participants in all of the movements."

Preserving Biodiversity

In many of the world’s poorest regions, up to 90 percent of the plantings are derived from seeds collected and saved within communities, a process that protects the strongest seed strains. Since 75 percent of the world’s population depends upon traditional, plant-based medicine, it is not only food security and genetic resistance that are dependant on diverse ecosystems.

In Thailand, studies of 60 women-managed kitchen gardens found 230 different species of

plants, many of which had been rescued from the neighboring forest before it was clear cut. Ruth Lilongula, a resident of the Solomon Islands, explains, "Biodiversity is the very core of our existence within communities. You cannot say how many dollars this is worth because it is our culture and our survival. Our environment is many things, a classroom, a pharmacy and a supermarket."

One of the best-known examples of women’s empowerment is Kenya’s Green Belt reforestation movement. Started by Wangari Maathai (who’s now Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife) on Earth Day in 1977, it mobilized 50,000 women to plant 20 million trees, combating desertification, restoring soil health and protecting watersheds. "When you plant a tree and watch it grow, something happens to you
.You see the relationship between a person and the environment," says Maathai.

Pollution Persists

Africa’s Niger Delta is home to a rich variety of seafood that has allowed the local residents a constant supply of food that has been subsistence harvested for thousands of years. In the spring of 2004, a tragic oil spill destroyed that abundance. More than 30 years earlier, multinational companies had laid underground pipes to transport the oil that had recently been discovered. Abandoned and un-maintained, the pipes eventually rotted, spilling oil into local waters and wreaking havoc.

Over-fishing has exacerbated the problem. As one local fisherman explained, "Fish have moved from the creeks to deep waters, where it is too dangerous for our canoes to go. Big fishing boats, most of them manned by foreigners, now get the big catches." Most young people have left the delta for the cities, leaving an aging population behind.

The Stockholm Convention has made a concerted effort to rid the world of some of the most hazardous chemicals. But the problem persists, and poorer nations often become the dumping grounds for chemicals that are illegal elsewhere. Nigeria, for instance, has agreed to the Stockholm Convention, but with no funds or manpower to enforce the rules the chemicals are still available on store shelves.


The world’s population, currently at 6.3 billion, is expected to reach 8.9 billion by 2050. Most of that growth is coming from developing countries, where biodiversity is high, environmental decline is widespread and healthcare is a challenge. The UN calls overpopulation "the root cause of environmental degradation." Population policies often have a bad reputation, as women have been coerced to either have or not have babies, depending on the needs of the government. Although it has led to the reduction of the population by an estimated 250 million, the Chinese "one-child" policy has led to allegations of forced abortions and sterilization. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, "Given the longstanding preference for boy babies in China, the one-child policy has made female infanticide common. Baby girls are also abandoned at orphanages and churches."

In 1994 the International Conference on Population and Development got 179 governments worldwide to agree to a 20-year plan to stabilize the world’s population, agreeing on targeting individual choice and education, not coercion or control.

Economist Partha Dasgupta points out that childbearing in developing countries has very high health risks for women, as one in 57 will die in childbirth. When given the choice, women the world over have fewer children, but in many places, that choice is not available. "Data on the status of women from 79 so-called Third World countries display an unmistakable pattern: high fertility, high rates of illiteracy, low share of paid employment and a high percentage of working at home for no pay—they all hang together," says Dasgupta.

According to Speth, there are voluntary methods that have successfully reduced population growth. "These include empowering women socially and politically, making contraceptives and other non-coercive family planning services available, providing maternal and child healthcare, education for girls and jobs for women," he says. As an example of how this works in practice, by 2100 India may have 600 million fewer people than predicted because of improvements in women’s quality of living and available contraception.

Worldwide, about 60 percent of men and women use modern contraceptive methods, but 38 percent of all pregnancies are still unwanted, and 150 million married women around the globe want family planning services and can’t get them. When available, contraceptive services are widely used; in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, 59 percent of married couples now use contraception. Less than 20 percent did in 1990 when it was difficult to obtain.

By successfully denying family planning funds to any organization that it can somehow link to abortion, the Bush administration has cut off $34 million in funding for birth control and maternal and child healthcare. In 2002, the UN Population Fund found its HIV/AIDS funding blocked. The logic of this is unclear, since reducing funding for family planning actually results in more abortions. So far, European countries have made up for the Bush funding cuts.

While Laura Bush has said, "President Bush is firmly committed to the empowerment, education and health of women around the world," the administration refuses to endorse the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and in March 2004, rolled back support for the Beijing Platform of Action, which outlines steps countries can take to advance women’s status.

Empowering women clearly has broad benefits. Giving them the resources to decide how many children to have, what kind of farming to engage in, or what to do with waste water affects everyone, as our environmental mistakes poison the air of people halfway around the globe and their mistakes cost them their lives.

STARRE VARTAN is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.