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2 The regional conference on women and environment

2 The regional conference on women and environment

The Regional Conference on Women and Environment was held at Lahore, Pakistan from February 10 -12,1992. Participants included official representatives of the Governments of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan; two peasant women from each country who had participated in the National Summits; representatives of the NGOs involved in organising the Summits; and representatives of various United Nations agencies, UNIFEM, UNICEF, ILO, and UNCED. The Conference was sponsored by UNIFEM and organised by Aurat Foundation which had earlier organised the Pakistan National Summit. For unavoidable reasons peasant women from India could not attend the meeting.

The first session was chaired by Dr. Arshad Zaman, Chief Economist and Special Secretary in the Ministry of Planning and Development, Government of Pakistan. Chandni Joshi, Regional Resource Officer, UNIFEM (who had attended three of the National Summits) reiterated UNIFEM's concern with presenting the voices of South Asian peasant women on issues related to their livelihood and their environment, and ensuring that their voices be heard at global discussions on the future of the world's environment. Being the first of their kind in all four countries, the Summits had been recognised as being "historic". Irene Santiago, Chief of the Asia Pacific Section of UNIFEM, welcomed both "the friends of the environment and friends of women" to the Summit. She expressed her happiness at the fact that the Summits had, for the first time, enabled South Asian peasant women to conduct a dialogue among themselves and present their views on environmental problems. They had also made several valuable points suchs as:

The six peasant women from Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh spoke at length of their experiences at the Summits. We offer a summary below:

The next session began with an overview by Vina Mazumdar (CWDS) synthesising the findings of the four National Summits and the two historic meetings that preceded or coincided with this exercise: the UNICEF/UNFPA/UNCED symposium, Impact of Environmental Degradation and Poverty on Women and Children (May 1991, Geneva) and the Miami World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet (November 991).1

The morning of the second day began with a global overview of findings from research on women, environment and development, presented by Irene Dankelman, Environment Consultant, UNIFEM, New York. It highlighted various forms of overt and covert discrimination against peasant women practiced in many countries of the world, making it difficult for them to retain control over even the most degraded land. In developed countries like the United States women had protested against nuclear waste polluting water courses and increasing the incidence of cancer and other disabling diseases. Moreover, recent data show that most toxic waste dumps in the US are situated in poor neighbourhoods of blacks and other ethnic minorities.

The health of women and children is further neglected in many development programmes and projects which involve the widespread distribution of pesticides or fertilizers. Users are not alerted about the required safety precautions, and there is now enough evidence to show that peasant and other poor women share the experience of living in an ever degrading environment, the world over. Some positive steps to reverse this cycle have been initiated by NGOs, governments and other development actors. Projects like those supported by ILO and UNIFEM demonstrate that environmental regeneration and the improvement of poor women's status go hand in hand, but a recognition of women's role in natural resource management is largely absent within the scientific and development community.

Filomina Steady from the UNCED Secretariat talked about the efforts being made by her office to ensure that "women's ideas, aspirations, wishes, hopes, concerns and needs are included in the decisions and plans to improve the planet and develop all countries in a way that does not harm the planet while benefitting people". The poverty and environment question is linked to social and economic factors and development policies. Remedying this situation calls for both political will and meaningful participation by the people: "The participation of women, especially peasant women is crucial since their daily lives are involved in an intensive interaction with the environment. It is peasant women's work that may eventually show us how to mother the earth and how to save our planet."

Participants then broke up into four country groups for discussions (see Annexure III for guidelines). The organisers also provided for some intensive discussion amongst government representatives from all four countries, and between peasant women and NGO workers, to arrive at a consensus for presenting the outcome of this conference at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in June 1992.

The recommendations formulated, first by the country- specific groups and then by the cross-country groups of officials and of peasant women and NGOs, present a varied picture of the nature of interaction between ideologically divided groups, leading to an assimilation of new ideas.

Let us briefly consider the discussions within country groups, below.


The group consisted of two government representatives, two peasant women and one NGO activist. The last-named shared the educational and class background of the two government officials. Of the five only one was a man. The discussions revealed some ideological differences but the final recommendations were concrete and reflected the priorities of the guidelines. These are summarised as follows:

1. Land

2. Water

3. Forests

4. Empowerment

5. Education


The group consisted of three government representatives, one independent researcher-activist and two representatives from UN bodies-UNIFEM and ILO. All six belonged to the educated urban middle class, five were women, and all of them were familiar to some extent with current development debates around women, people's participation, and the environmental crisis. Three of them had been present at the National Summit and greatly impressed by the observations of the peasant women. To compensate for the absence of peasant women at the Lahore Summit, the group decided to take serious note of the discussions held during the National Summit and to formulate concrete recommendations based on them. These are summarised below:

1. Land

*An experiment familiar in India through the Dairy Development Programme of the Seventies.

2. Water

3. Forests

4. Health and Health Education

5. Education and Information

6. Empowerment

7. Others


The group consisted of two senior government officers, two peasant women, one NGO representative, and the Regional Resource Officer of UNIFEM (who had initiated the Nepal government's WID programme for rural women some years earlier). As pointed out although class differences do not constitute a serious problem for such dialogues in Nepal, the political and constitutional history of the country has prevented the spread of NGO activities in the past. Most NGOs are of recent origin and include many former or even serving officers of the government. This is certainly the case with those NGOs working with rural women. The group therefore, felt it necessary to clearly define the functions of government (legislation and policy formulation), media (creating awareness), and NGOs (as activists and facilitators). The recommendations focussed on:



The group consisted of two senior government officers (both men) two peasant women, several NGO activists (all women), and some local representatives of UN agencies involved in WID programmer. The majority were highly educated professionals, and ideological differences, especially on gender-related issues, were strong. This is reflected in the somewhat general tone and smaller number of recommendations made. The group noted that the roots of environmental degradation lie in "the highly consumerist lifestyle of the industrialised countries and the economically powerful groups within the other countries"; it recommended:

Report of the non-official delegates

The working group's report was presented by Maryam Palejo from Sindhiani Tehrik (Hyderabad, Pakistan), and is reproduced below

Report of the official delegates

The working group's report was presented by Khemraj Nepal, Joint Secretary, National Planning Commission (Nepal), and is reproduced below:

The concluding session was chaired by Akhtar Hameed Khan, the 78 year old initiator of the exemplary Orangi Pilot Project, Karachi.* He referred to the growing evidence on poor women's contribution to building shelters and providing income for the family; on the sense of social responsibility they bring to bear on all community oriented projects; on their contribution to preventive health programmes and credit-based self-employment activities; and on their doing well whenever they get access to education. Acknowledging this the Regional Conference came up with the following declaration:

* In his younger days, he had also initiated the Comilla community development project in erstwhile East Bengal and founded the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development.

The Regional Conference made the following recommendations:

I. Land

II. Water

III. Forests

IV. Empowerment

Recognising that the low status of women is the underlying factor exacerbating the environment/development crisis:

Women as a voting constituency are increasingly becoming important on this subcontinent and their voices can no longer be ignored.

Summarising the lessons of the Conference in the last session Khushi Kabir from ADAB (Bangladesh) observed that the Conference had been very valuable for all participants, by providing a forum for a much-needed dialogue. The peasant women had clearly realised the critical importance of organisation, as they indicated by their discussions: "It is good to give recommendations and pass laws, but will they ever be acted on? The solution lies in the whole question of empowerment of which our organisational strength is the basis."

Stressing the need for sharing the strength that comes from solidarity, she said this initiative had to be supported and acted upon "to assess our weakness, test our strength and to devise ways and means for the solution of the problems that we failed to solve".

The next most crucial lesson of the Conference was that of access to and dissemination of information. "The women felt that certain things were known, they felt it with their bodies, they felt it with their hands, they felt it with their minds, but they did not have real information as to what was making things happen."

From the policy planners' point of veiw, the Conference had helped to demonstrate the unity of concerns between their objectives and the women's priorities on the issue of environment. "The success of the whole exercise will depend on its continuity. The dialogue should continue at both national and regional levels."

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