June Zeitlin: Empowering Women, Saving Lives

Attorney June Zeitlin is the executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an international advocacy group working to empower female policymakers around the world. Established in 1990 by the late U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY) and veteran feminist activist and journalist Mim Kelber, WEDO works closely with the United Nations on women’s issues.

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E Magazine: What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in developing nations?

For poor women in rural areas, issues relating to access to clean water and sanitation are really critical, for livelihood, health and survival. This issue is getting more attention as water gets more scarce. Often the gender dimensions are ignored, even though the facts are very well documented that in rural areas, particularly in Africa, women spend many hours trying to get clean water, and bring it back. And that often interferes with their ability to generate income in other ways. Young girls are often taken out of school to get water. And of course contaminated water is the leading source of disease in many developing countries.

Overall, has the situation improved for women over the past 20 years?

Change never happens in a straight line. I think there is much greater awareness that women are part of decision making. There is growing recognition of how central gender equality and women’s roles are. Many commitments have been made at global UN meetings about the importance of women’s access to water, at least on paper. The implementation of that, the translation into change at the local community level is quite varied.

How are globalization and privatization affecting women’s lives?

They are having a very devastating impact on women. An example is the struggle in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the government’s decision to privatize water led to much higher rates and much more limited access, particularly for poor indigenous women. So, this is an issue that women’s groups are increasingly concerned about and trying to join with other economic and social justice organizations to challenge privatization. In order to be successful as they were in Bolivia, it really takes a combination of activism at the local level, where women and men in the community really put themselves on the line, but also a lot of support and advocacy at the global level. Both the government and the global institutions, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, have to be challenged.

How do resource issues affect women differently than they would affect men?

In many communities women and men assume different roles, both in terms of family caregiving but also in terms of livelihood. In some places, women have not been involved in management of water or water sources are placed in locations outside of the community where the emphasis is on irrigating large fields that men are often taking care of. But that means water is much less accessible to women for basic family hygiene, cooking, and also smaller farm plots that women, primarily, use to grow food for themselves and for the community.

So the key is getting women involved in local decision making?

Yes. In Kenya, for example, women had to travel two or three miles away from home to collect water or to purchase it at a high price from water sellers. So women organized a communal self-help group to help each other take turns getting water. But then they went to the government and asked officials there to get involved. Their success led to an improvement in sanitation and reduction in disease, and also more water for agricultural production.

What environmental factors are most important to women in developing nations?

I think the whole issue of women’s knowledge of biodiversity, particularly in indigenous communities, is a critical question. Such information has been accumulated over hundreds of years, yet when governments meet at a convention on biological diversity these gender issues are either invisible or pushed to the margins. So we’re seeing instances where either the land is being developed, the resources destroyed or women losing out to transnational corporations in debates about patent ownership.

What are the next steps for women’s empowerment in developing nations?

In 1995, more than 40,000 women went to Beijing, China to get governments to commit to a broader agenda to advance women’s rights. And out of that came the Beijing Platform for Action, which has 12 themes, one of which is environment. Some 189 governments adopted the Beijing Platform, which has its 10-year review next year. In the five-year review, groups that were concerned with natural resources and environmental issues weren’t very active. I think it’s really important that the energy that women brought linking sustainable development and poverty and women’s rights gets highlighted. Governments will be submitting reports to the UN about what they have done to achieve the Beijing goals. So it is a good time to pressure them, embarrass them, and push them so they have something to actually say they’ve done.