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:
- in order to put women on the agenda we have to have women in our midst;
- there is an immediate need to tackle the powerlessness and invisibility of peasant women;
- it is absolutely imperative for women to speak out;
- policy makers should hold dialogues with peasant women on a regular basis.
The six peasant women from Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh spoke at length of their experiences at the Summits. We offer a summary below:
When I participated in Haryali (Greening) Conference at Manawan, Pakistan, I had come with the assumption that women from our area were suffering the most because of environmental degradation. But when I talked to other women from different areas of Pakistan, I realised that most of our problems were similar, especially the problem of water. I belong to the northern area. There, when it snows hard in winter, we are happy because more snow in winter means more water in summer. But in summer, we have to face floods if it has snowed more in the previous winter. Water finishes quickly; also it becomes muddier because the same source of water is used and subsequently polluted by animals. We also find muddy water in wells. There is no way to clear the muddy water of the wells. During winter, the surface of the well freezes. We have to trek many kilometres to reach the wells and have to break the ice on the surface first to get to the water. Use of unhygienic water causes many diseases like goitre, stomach problems, etc.
The second big problem is deforestation. Gradually the forests have disappeared. We have to buy very expensive firewood at Rs. 80-100 per maund (approximately 36-37 kg.) Kerosene oil is more than five rupees per litre. If we go out to look for firewood, we have to trek for at least two to four hours. Sometimes there are landslides. In all the provinces of Pakistan, women's lives are very difficult.
The land has been reduced because of division of property and the same needs for vegetables, food and fodder have to be fulfilled from the same land. Some people have become landless. Since tea has become more popular as a drink, the consumption of milk has increased and sometimes one has to buy milk as well. It is women's responsibility to look after the livestock. If the husband or other male members of the family have outmigrated due to economic reasons, women are the ones looking after the crops, gardens, children; they do almost everything to keep the home running smoothly.
But please don't think that peasant women only know how to complain; they also work very hard to solve these problems. The peasant women don't depend on others; they do most of their work themselves.
We are grateful to Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) who have helped us unite and work together. Now there are 500 women's organisations in our area and our total savings amount to 15 million rupees.
Bibi Sultana, peasant woman
from Gilgit, Pakistan
The state of our environment is worsening every day. One of the reasons behind this phenomenon is the use of chemical fertilizers which cause many diseases, e.g., cancer, etc. The rain clouds are scarcer now than before which may mean famine in places where agriculture depends on rains. Trees are also becoming fewer and fewer due to inconsiderate and unplanned cutting. Earlier people used to sit together under the shade of trees and share their problems; no longer. Availability of wood for cooking and construction has been curtailed. Gardens are disappearing as well.
There is a negative change in the social environment. More and more people are using heroin, opium and other drugs. This change does not augur well for our society.
Women these days are trying to change themselves. In the past they tried to limit themselves to the four walls of their homes. Now, they are going out of the homes to work; they are also taking part in politics, which is an encouraging sign.
Most of the women have to suffer, so it is important for all of us to express our solidarity with them, which means expressing solidarity with ourselves as all of us suffer the same fate. There is a proverb in Sindhi which, loosely translated, means, "Not till the sufferers get together, will the mourning be becoming.
Mumtaz Nizamani, peasant woman
formally associated with Sindhiani
Tehrik in Sind, Pakistan
I shall first talk of the natural environment. The issue of trees is extremely important. We must grow more trees for food and fuel use. We have heard stories of fruit trees and healthy children from our grandparents, but unfortunately due to environmental degradation and lack of trees, haven't seen these ourselves. Now our organisation is trying to plant more trees.
The quality of soil is suffering because of excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Natural pests beneficial to the soil and crops are dying due to indiscriminate use of chemicals. The people of my Adivasi community also contract many skin problems, also our fingers get affected because of the chemical use.
Another problem is water. During March-April especially there is lack of water. There are no deep tube wells and shallow tube-wells do not work. The water we get from wells is usually not clean, due to which there are many health problems. Our organisation is trying to combat these problems.
Drug abuse and its social and health impact is also being tackled by us. We again and again come across people who have become landless, especially tribal people, and our organisation tries to solve their problems if it can.
Sisilia Soren, Member, Jagadishpur
Adivasi Bhoomihin Mahila Samiti,
We have achieved a lot through our organisation. Firstly, we leant to share our problems, define them and work out ways to solve them ourselves. We started a savings scheme; arranged for training, of leadership, mother's health, child care amongst many others.
The problems we come across are many, for example, deforestation. Men have cut the trees down to make money. Now, we realise that we should plant ten trees in its place if we cut one. Lack of sanitation and of proper toilets cause many intestinal diseases. Through our organisation, we have learnt ourselves and taught others the use of toilets and have eliminated many diseases. Then, excessive amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides/insecticides gets washed in the ponds and other water sources. It not only affects our drinking water but also our survival, i.e., fish.
Our land is a land of rivers. We women fight the floods when they come, we try to protect our livestock and our children during floods, while men run away.
Our strength is in our being together. We are no longer alone and no longer in the background. We are no longer invisible. We decided not to keep anyone in our village illiterate and we succeeded. Now, we have also decided to take part in elections to get power and decision-making into our own hands.
Julekha Begum, Gaibandha, Bangladesh
I attended the National Summit on women and environment in Kathmandu. Now I am here in Pakistan which is a rare opportunity for me.
In Nepal 1979, when women and development programme was started, the landlords and the elite, also the moneylenders, felt threatened. They were afraid that if women became informed and aware, they would lose control over them, so they tried to disrupt the programme. Now the situation is slightly better. Through this conference, I have come to know that there are many programmes being run for women, some of them by women as well, but still a lot more needs to be done where women, environment and development is concerned.
Krishna Kumari Gurung, peasant
woman from Morang, Nepal
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:
- Include transfer of government land by deed to female-headed households.
- Provide for more planned use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and gather more information regarding existing alternatives and experiences.
- While planning embankments plan adequate dredging of rivers and provide a proper drainage system with adequate maintenance.
- Develop new guidelines and special zones for shrimp culture.
- Provide for separate flood relief programmes for women.
- Increase the use of handpumps to provide water for all purposes.
- Provide for the involvement of women in government programmes and revive women's extensive knowledge of plants.
- Shift from monoculture to mixed forestry to provide fuelwood, fruits and timber.
- Adopt tree-planting programmer.
- Reforest along embankments.
- Involve women in afforestation programmes.
- Promote the setting up of formal and informal organisations at the local level and encourage networking to develop alternatives.
- Increase literacy and awareness, and access to credit and information.
- Increase women's political participation through direct election and provision of quotas.
- Generate data on women and environment.
- Create opportunities for dialogues between local women and the government.
- Extend the BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) model of non-formal education to all rural areas.
- Link family planning programmes with income generation and with motivating men to go in for contraception.
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:
- Titles to be made jointly to the husband and wife or poor women's groups in the case of land transfers made by the government.
- The amendment, within a limited time-frame, of provisions violating women's rights in existing land laws and of procedures for the distribution of new lands by the government.
- The setting up of multidisciplinary 'spearhead groups'* in all extension programmes to work with the target groups with a view to accumulating traditional knowledge and practices and incorporate such information into their institutional work.
- Scientific institutions, agricultural universities, other research institutions and NGOs with proven technologies for problem lands to be given a mandate to help a specified number of villages in their own programmes. Some negative incentives should be built into the funding mechanism to ensure the review of grants if such extension work is not carried out.
*An experiment familiar in India through the Dairy Development Programme of the Seventies.
- Government projects for water resources (canals, ponds, ground water etc.) should incorporate the provision of water for domestic use.
- The traditional usufructuary rights of rural people should have priority over subsequent laws.
- Joint management of forests should be promoted with 50% representation of poor peasant women in all forest committees to ensure their conservation, and guarantee the rights of peasant women to non-timber forest produce.
- The selection of species for social forestry programmes should be done in consultation with women's groups.
4. Health and Health Education
- Some land from common property resources should be set aside for building toilets and bathing places for women. These must be linked with the available water supply system.
5. Education and Information
- Scientific knowledge regarding the treatment of different types of soil, the hazards of using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and information on indigenous options should be made available to poor peasant women.
- information regarding women's legal rights, credit facilities, etc. should be disseminated through media, extension networks, training programmes, public notices and other methods.
- Legal awareness regarding the protection and enforcement of women's rights should be inculcated among a cross-section of the population.
- Such legal provisions should be a component in all training programmes for government officials and policy makers.
- Education in basic laws should be imparted through schools and literacy programmes.
- Ownership records and government circulars should be publicly displayed in schools and community institutions.
- Support should be extended to income generation activities for women in programmes for wasteland development, recovery of water resources, agro-processing etc.
- Forty per cent of the funds in all government programmes involving people's participation should be earmarked for women's groups.
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:
- Greater interaction between the government and communities.
- The inclusion of extension workers in dialogues, discussion groups and training programmes.
- Training and information about land, water and forests to be made available to women, with a focus on legal, technical and management aspects.
- Research on a priority basis on women and environment issues.
- Community involvement in planning and deciding development projects.
- Promoting the cultivation of cash crops (cardamom, medicinal plants, etc.) on wastelands.
- Training women in the repair and maintenance of drinking water systems.
- Linking drinking water and sanitation programmes.
- Making industries accountable for industrial waste, if necessary, through legislation.
- Use religious tenets to promote conservation.
- Set up an environmental action agency with a strong representation of women.
- Call for the representation of women in the national planning commission.
- Utilise a variety of male and female teachers, including priests and shamans, to disseminate health information and provide services.
- Incorporate women, environment and population components in all formal or non-formal educational programmes, avoiding stereotyping of gender roles.
- Use regional or ethnic languages, face-to-face discussions, audio visual media, and traditional forms of communication in information programmes.
- Lobby for the establishment of international mechanisms to ensure women's rights, check the trafficking in women, and prevent violence against them.
- Promote the establishment of networks in South Asia on women, development and environment.
- The enacting of legislation to prevent the production and sale of tobacco and alcohol.
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:
- The initiation and reinforcement of awareness and educational campaigns.
- The monitoring and prevention of the import or production of hazardous fertilizers and pesticides. For this purpose research on their effects should be conducted, users should be educated on their use and possible side effects, and alternatives developed.
- The equipping of agricultural and other extension systems with information and skills to ensure better and more widespread dissemination of information and the involvement of NGOs in this.
- The developing of mechanisms to identify area-specific projects responsive to women's needs, especially with regard to water and sanitation, on a matching-grant basis.
- The promotion of forest management by communities, ensuring the effective participation of women in management committees.
- The assessment of the impact of projects under the national conservation strategy on women, and the potential for involving them at the planning and monitoring stages.
The working group's report was presented by Maryam Palejo from Sindhiani Tehrik (Hyderabad, Pakistan), and is reproduced below
The working group appreciates this opportunity of a direct dialogue between the peasant women and policy makers/planners. We hope that [it] will be fruitful for both and that both will learn from each other.
We also feel that we have learnt much from our friends from other South Asian countries. We had thought that we were the only ones suffering from the problems that we have discussed earlier. Now we know that our sisters had to face similar problems. We may be living in different geographical areas but our experiences unite us. We hope that the concerns voiced by us here will also be heard at the Brazil Conference.
The working group is of the opinion that the environmental problems that have been highlighted - water, chemical fertilizers, etc.-cannot be solved completely by the small NGOs that are working actively in this regard at the moment because of limited financial resources. The governments have the financial resources and human power as well to tackle these problems, but somehow they are not doing it. So there is an acute need for all the small organisations to get together and try to pressurise the government to take action. It can be very effective, as is obvious from our Bangladeshi friends' example, who could only get the local authorities to listen to their water problems when 5,000 of them got together and put pressure on the authorities.
We also feel that all these small organisations should form a network to be able to support each other.
Peasant women should be informed of the dangers of excessive fertilizer and pesticide use. They have to use these chemicals because of the food requirements, but we have seen the damage it does to their health, like dizziness, and skin problems, etc. Women should have access to information in this regard; they should also be trained in the proper use of these chemicals.
There is a need to keep our contact and experience sharing alive. We hope that through a larger network, of which all of our small organisations will be a part, we will be able not only to keep in touch but also to formulate common useful strategies to tackle the problems we face.
We also hope that more workshops/summits/conferences of the type we are going through at the moment, will be held. We look forward to such opportunities to get together, share and strengthen one another.
The working group's report was presented by Khemraj Nepal, Joint Secretary, National Planning Commission (Nepal), and is reproduced below:
The working group was of the view that this entire exercise of holding peasant women's summits focussing on environmental problems as they affect their own lives, has been extremely useful. The Regional Conference gave a chance to respective government delegations to listen to the voices of peasant women from our countries as well as the region and note the commonalities as well as diversities in these experiences. We as representatives of respective governments feel that the continuation of such a dialogue with these vitally affected groups of women within our own countries would be a critical input into our policy formulation processes in future. We thank UNIFEM for making this possible.
We have in our countrywise deliberations indicated what we propose to do as follow-up action within our own governments. However, we do feel that it is vital to reach these voices of poor peasant women from our countries to UNCED and recommend that appropriate steps be taken by UNIFEM to incorporate the results of the Four National Summits and this Regional Conference in the agenda for the UNCED through the forthcoming Preparatory Conference in New York.
It was also resolved that the national suggestions to UNCED should include a concrete action plan and mechanisms for regular monitoring of the impact of environmental policies on all poor peasant women; this should be included in their national reports to national legislatures. It was further resolved that the promotion of greater opportunities for sharing experiences among peasant women's groups within each country and the region should form part of the follow-up action plan.
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:
Empowerment means that women need to be taken seriously. This forum has proved that policy makers, planners, international agencies and experts can no longer ignore the voice of the poor peasant woman when they develop ways and means, against incredible odds, to deal with the present environment crisis. This forum has proved that the issue of North versus South is central to this environment crisis. Women are the epicentre of this centre!
* 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:
1. Recognising that there is a male preference in land ownership, and that women need ownership of land in order to get access and control over (natural) resources and credit; recognising that about 30% of the rural households in the region are headed by women; recognising that for environmental regeneration women's control over land is crucial:
We recommend that ownership of land jointly or singly by women should be guaranteed by the government as a matter of priority.
2. Recognising the serious and rapid degradation of resources throughout the region, and the adverse impact of this degradation on the work and health of women:
We recommend that governments mandate scientific institutes and agricultural universities, which have proven technologies for restoring highly degraded land, to transfer the available knowledge and technologies to local communities, focussing on the needs and knowledge-base of peasant women and ensuring their full participation.
3. Recognising that research and dissemination is a two way process:
We recommend that traditional knowledge and practices of peasant women be documented and used by scientific institutions and policy makers in development policies and programmes on environment and development.
4. Recognising that the over-use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides adversely affects the environment and people's health through direct contact, water sewers and consumption; recognising that women because of their reproductive functions and their offspring are especially vulnerable:
We recommend that women be informed about the hazards of these chemicals and about the technical knowledge for their proper use. We recommend that alternatives for these inputs be studied and encouraged as soon as possible.
5 Recognising that availability of clean water is a basic human right and that effective management is necessary; recognising that local water management practices have yielded good results:
We recommend that governments incorporate local communities in the planning and management of their water programmes and projects and in particular guarantee women's participation.
6. Recognising that natural disasters like floods have a detrimental effect on people's life, especially on women; recognising that flood prevention measures and relief tend to neglect women's needs:
We recommend that all flood relief and prevention programmes incorporate the views and voices of women, and ensure their participation at all levels and in all stages.
7. Recognising that peasant women are the primary users and collectors of forest produce, and that therefore forests are central in their lives:
We recommend that the usufruct rights of the people be restored in places where they have fallen into disuse, through adequate information to the communities about these. This should promote the joint management of community and reserve forests by the government and the people. Poor peasant women, who rely on these forests, should have 50% representation on forest management committees
We also recommend that in social forestry programmes the selection of species to be planted should be done in consultation with women's groups. This information should feed into research programmes executed by forest management institutes.
Recognising that the low status of women is the underlying factor exacerbating the environment/development crisis:
We recommend that technical training, legal literacy, environmental literacy, adequate health and nutrition, access to resources, facilities are basic entitlements. Governments are accountable to provide these as enabling factors to improve the status of women.
The experiences of effective group organizations in conserving and regenerating the environment have shown that women's vulnerabilities can be reduced through collective action. We recommend that intermediary organizations like NGOs and traditional organizations promote this kind of activity as an essential tool in the empowerment of women.
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."