Updated December 1997
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The recent history of women's movements is critical in understanding current attempts to link gender and sustainability. Feminism has presented quite a heterogeneous front at any one time, and it has evolved considerably in recent decades. Several authors have attempted to classify the various currents within the women's movements (inter alia, Young ; Braidotti et al. chapters 4 and 5 ). However, it is not our purpose to report on these different faces and phases of feminism, except inasmuch as they relate to the current discussions of sustainability, particularly within the context of international development efforts.
In the first two decades after the concepts of "development" and "underdevelopment" were first voiced (in President Truman's 1949 inaugural speech), the economic role of women was perceived basically in the area of reproduction; the contribution of women to the economy was largely overlooked. However, in reaction to criticism of this approach, the term Women in Development (WID) was coined in the early 1970s.
The WID approach emerged in response to the realization that development initiatives promoted among the poor failed to address women's needs, did not promote their participation, and left them out of the ensuing benefits. The natural path to follow was thus to devise ways of incorporating women in current development programmes and projects, regardless of their scope and methodology. The focus was on women as a "special" group and success was measured in terms of the number of women participating in such development actions. The approach, concerned solely with the incorporation of women in ongoing interventions, did not question the type of activity itself, nor the implicit development model, nor did it concern itself with the probability that the model, as well as its underlying inequities, would reproduce itself over the long range.
The economic crisis of the 1980s led to increasing poverty among "developing" countries and it became evident that women were being most seriously affected. The term "feminization of poverty" was coined to refer to the increased role of women as providers and as the prime victims of cutbacks in government spending. The 1980s were also marked by a considerable growth of women's movements in the developing countries and some of these groups began to assail the very notion of development, spawning alternative visions of it from a feminist perspective.
Towards the end of the 1980s, a new approach thus emerged. This focused on Gender and Development (GAD) and sought to express the mobilization and integration of women in development. The GAD approach emerged as a reaction to the meager results of WID, wherein women were at best incorporated through minor components in larger projects, or were involved in small projects aimed at women only, thus continuing to be left out of the main thrust of development interventions.
The issue was no longer one of incorporating women (who were involved in much of the work, yet continued to be left out of most of the benefits), but rather of empowering them in order to transform unequal relations. The point of the GAD approach is to examine how the relative positions of men and women in society, and the system governing the relations between them, affect their ability to participate in development. Whereas the WID approach had attempted to increase women's participation and benefits, thereby making development more effective, GAD sought to empower women and to transform unequal social/gender relations. It aimed for full equality of women within the framework of economic development (Braidotti et al. 1994: 80-82).
The GAD approach thus posed the issue of equality, equity and rights as central to development efforts, and by addressing these questions, it questioned the kind of development model, its relations of power and the conditions for its continuation into the future. In this train of thought, the issue of sustainability and its relation to gender inequality and inequity followed naturally.
The efforts of women's movements to cope with the Earth's deteriorating environment has led to a far-reaching debate on women, environment and sustainable development (WED) in the South; in the North it has given rise to nature feminism and ecofeminism. The WED discussion was nurtured by increased interest in such problems as deforestation and desertification - associated by some analysts with poverty and overpopulation - by the observation that fuelwood, animal fodder and water were becoming increasingly scarce in certain parts of the world, and, above all, that women were most affected by such shortages (Braidotti et al. 1994:1-2). The implications of these postures for sustainability will be discussed in greater detail below.
For the present, the point is that the modern conception of women's movements, after considerable changes in mainstream thought, is primarily concerned with gender equality and equity. Given the dynamic nature of reflection and action in women's movements, it is almost certain that the central concepts will continue to evolve. For our purposes, this makes it difficult to pinpoint a universalistic and lasting agenda in connection with, for instance, sustainable development - itself a rather changeable and difficult-to-grasp paradigm.
Women as victims: the impact of environmental change on the roles of women and men
Much of the earlier literature dealing with gender and sustainability focused on the role of women in the context of environmental change in rural/agricultural areas, particularly deforestation and desertification. The basic generalizations made at that time are routinely replicated and uncritically cited to this day. Processes such as deforestation and desertification undoubtedly have a direct impact on the amount of time rural dwellers affected spend in gathering fuelwood, fodder and fetching water. Given that in many societies it is women who are traditionally responsible for these tasks, the increased amount of time consumed to perform them is probably the most widely cited example of the impact of environmental degradation on women (cf. Braidotti et al. 1994; Rodda 1991; Awumbila and Momsen 1995). For example, in parts of India, women have to walk one to five extra hours for each headload of firewood (Sarin 1995). In some parts of Africa, women spend several hours a day fetching water, meaning also increased nutritional requirements - calculated to be up to a quarter or more of the daily food intake (Rodda 1991).
Environmental change in this context can also mean loss of efficiency in performing some daily tasks such as cooking. Due to diminishing fuelwood sources, cooking is increasingly done with crop residues or other alternatives such as cowdung, which in turn uses up an important source of fertilizer. Some 800 million people are reported to rely on residues to supply their energy needs (Rodda 1991). Less efficient fuel use translates into an increased time requirement and may also have a polluting impact.
An analogous statement concerning women as primary victims of environmental degradation has also been made with respect to urban areas. Poor urban households have been described as the most dangerous environment known to humankind. Poor urban people live in unsafe and cramped structures, generally located in environmentally vulnerable or degraded areas, without adequate protection from the elements. The human environment is polluted by cooking fumes and organic decay, due to the lack of basic infrastructure and services, as well as to air pollution from industrial and transportation fumes. The lack of safe and sufficient water supply subjects the urban population to disease vectors that cause infectious and parasitic illnesses. Again women bear the brunt of these various shortcomings in the home because they spend more time there.
The literature also emphasizes the fact that, in addition to environmental degradation having differential impacts on men and women, the social responses that arise to protect resources may also have gendered impacts. The Joint Forest Management resolutions that 15 Indian states issued to protect forests, for example, resulted in women having to walk an average of ten kilometers to reach unprotected forests. The resolution establishes that wood gatherers in the protected areas are to be punished; of the offenders beaten as a result, 90% are women (Sarin 1995).
Although most of the literature focuses on the impact that environmental change has on women, a few studies address its impact on men. Joekes et al. (1994) report that in the Limbang district (Malaysia), commercial logging has affected men, who have to travel longer distances into the forest to hunt and collect construction materials, while for women it is more difficult to collect wild fruits, herbs and medicaments. They also report that as a response to change, women readily assume most of what are culturally considered to be men's traditional roles. Heyzer (1995) found that among the Penan (Malaysia) both men and women have to walk longer distances to fulfill household provisioning responsibilities.
Changes in gender roles due to environmental change are commonplace. In the Embu district of Kenya, Oniang'o reports that due to the occupation of dry marginal lands that originated as a response to rapid population growth - "Many respondents declared that roles were no longer gender-based since changing circumstances had led to the disintegration of the indigenous social matrix" (1995: 56).
Migration is one of the frequently cited consequences of environmental degradation. The studies that look at the ensuing gender impacts generally assume a model in which men are the migrants and the women are left behind; therein, women struggle with the burden of producing food for survival with reduced labour resources and less knowledge on agricultural production (Rodda 1991). As a result, in order to guarantee their livelihood and that of their families, women take up men's roles and frequently engage in unsustainable agricultural practices (Mackenzie 1995).
This model assumes that agricultural knowledge is a male prerogative, which is at least partially incorrect for, as discussed below, men and women often have different types of agricultural know-how. Moreover, in parts of the developing world, such as Latin America, most of the rural to urban migration in the past decades was done by women; in some types of Asian international movements, labour migrants are being increasingly done by women.
In brief, the available literature overwhelmingly suggests that the impact of environmental change is greater on women. This impact can be of two types: an increased amount of time to be allocated to carry out traditional tasks, and health consequences for the woman and her children. Given that women are usually in charge of the sick, the family health consequences also tax women's time. That is, environmental change adds on to an already overloaded work burden. According to the ILO, all this causes women to carry out two-thirds of all the work carried on in the world. What the literature fails to highlight sufficiently, however, is that environmental change also affects men, though differentially; a more balanced picture would require a truly gendered approach.
Women as resource managers
Since the end of the 1980s, the emphasis on women as the victims of environmental degradation has been gradually superseded by one in which women are seen as resource managers. This reflects a shift in the way women came to be seen by the development establishment, from passive aid recipients to active agents of change. Since resource management is seen to be a critical element of sustainable development, it has been stated that women's full participation is essential for the attainment of sustainable development (World Resources Institute, UNEP, UNDP 1994; UNFPA 1992; Ofosu-Amaah 1993).
By focusing on women's traditional roles in providing daily consumption resources, this kind of analysis usually overlooks men's roles in resource management. While it remains true that women in rural areas of the third world are largely responsible for fetching water and fuelwood, men's traditional roles regarding fishery and forestry, for instance, have not been taken equally into account in the discussion of sustainability.
The emphasis on women in the context of sustainability reflects the postulate that women are inherently better resource managers than men, advanced by schools of thought that argue that women have a privileged relation with nature. This relation is seen to stem from the caring, nurturing, sustaining and non-violent attributes, which are said to be innate in women and which would make them more prone to conserve the environment. Men, on the other hand, are seen as having a patriarchal attitude to nature dominated by a mechanistic approach and a profit-driven pattern of resource exploitation. Women thus fall in the same category as nature, both of which suffer from a relation of oppression and dominance by the patriarchal male (Shiva 1989; Merchant 1989). "... women and nature are intimately related and their domination and liberation similarly linked." (Shiva 1989).
Ecofeminists explain men's and women's relationships with nature (which they equate with the environment) using a structuralist set of binary oppositions. Analogously to Lévi-Strauss' scheme , which has been amply criticised by feminists, women are related to nature and men to culture. Their conclusion is that, nature being inferior to culture, women are seen as inferior to men (cf. Leach, Joekes and Green 1995).
In some of the ecofeminists views, the proximity of women to nature is grounded in the female body, whose capacity to reproduce and to give life generates a different kind of relationship with the environment than the one that men can produce (Starhawk 1990). In contrast with this biological link, many other ecofeminists root in a spiritual link the proximity of women to nature (Nyoni 1993; Jiggins 1994) .
The obvious danger in this position is that it defies the very concept of gender, for if biology determines the relation to nature of men and women, it would also determine gender roles (sex roles) and these would be universal. Being biologically determined, change would be largely dependent on genetic evolution, not on social processes.
On another level, biological determinism means inequality. Some ecofeminists have recognized the inherent danger in this position, stating that the identification of women with nature implies a return to the starting point from which feminists have fought to emancipate women (Biehl 1991, cited in Braidiotti et al. 1994). Moreover, it is difficult to deny that spirituality is a cultural construction and not necessarily a woman's prerogative. In fact, many religions exclude or restrict women from its practice. Spirituality, as much as the caring, nurturing, non-violent or other attributes are culturally constructed as being feminine in modern western culture, but not necessarily so in a significant number of non-western cultures.
In this context, a particularly interesting discussion arises concerning the conservation of biodiversity. It is generally agreed that the knowledge, skills and practices needed for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources is critical for the preservation of biodiversity, which is linked with sustainability (FAO 1996; Bunning and Hill 1996). Such knowledge, skills and practices tend to differ along gender lines. Some authors sustain that women's knowledge is at the core of sustainability: "As the bearers of knowledge and the practitioners of the science of survival women contribute to and have a major stake in protecting the biological basis of all our future lives and livelihoods." (Rocheleau 1995: 14).
While men have generally engaged in cash crop cultivation (usually mono crops) throughout the Third World, women are more likely to be in charge of subsistence crops which they cultivate in homegardens, a farming system that contains high levels of biodiversity. In Thailand, homegardens managed by women were found to contain 29% of non-domesticated species (Moreno-Black et al., cited in Bunning and Hill 1996). In the Andean region, women were found to plant diverse potato seeds according to their traditional knowledge, in order to combine the desirable attributes of frost resistance, nutritional value, taste, quick cooking time and resistance to blight, while their husbands followed the mostly male extensionists advice to plant only one species (Rea, cited in Bunning and Hill 1996).
It is clear that not all knowledge needed for the preservation of biodiversity is in women's hands, but their traditional knowledge has to be acknowledged. However, just as gender roles change over time and in response to changing circumstances ("Boundaries of gendered knowledge are neither fixed nor independent" - Rocheleau 1995: 14), no particular kind of knowledge can be associated with men or women as such, but with their culturally constructed and sanctioned behaviour and attributes.
To conclude, there is nothing inherent to women's nature or biology that would make them better resource managers than men: cultural variations in the construction of feminine attributes, as well as changes in gender roles, and the adoption of unsustainable practices by women attest to that. Women's roles as resource managers throughout the developing world derive largely from a culturally based - and biased - division of labour. Moreover, by focusing on these traditional roles of women, programmes that promote improving these roles to better environmental conditions, carry the built-in danger of maintaining women's subordinate position, of which traditional roles are an integral part.
Gender relations, population and the environment
There have been numerous attempts to spell out the relationship between women, population and the environment. In these, women are viewed mainly in their reproductive role, which links them directly to population growth. Thus, women appear to be indirectly responsible for a deteriorating environment, since population growth is generally viewed as a key factor in environmental depletion.
In this section, our main interest is in the relation between gender and population growth. The issue of population and environment goes widely beyond the scope of this paper. For present purposes, suffice it to say that population is unquestionably important . However, the contribution of population factors to the expansion of critical/global problems is conditioned by the shape and rate of "development". Population growth and size, per se, are not directly responsible for major global environmental problems, although they unquestionably catalyze and contribute indirectly to their aggravation. Population factors are also clearly associated with the worsening of several forms of environmental problems classified here as "secondary" at the local level.
Gender relations play a significant role in population dynamics, for they are closely associated with fertility, mortality and spatial distribution. It is generally accepted that societies with higher levels of gender equality have lower levels of overall fertility, lower unwanted fertility and lower infant morbidity and mortality. A higher degree of equality between the genders is correlated with lower fertility due to factors such as better communication among the couple, which in turn will improve effectiveness in contraceptive use (Beckman et al. 1983; Hollerbach 1983; Caldwell 1981). Women's empowerment affects the manner in which families are formed, the number of offspring and thus, ultimately, population growth patterns. Empowerment helps bridge the gap between actual and desired fertility, the latter being very frequently higher than the former among poor women.
In India, for instance, the literature supports the notion that gender issues explain much of the differences in fertility levels between the northern and eastern regions of the country (Dyson and Moore 1983:48). Altogether, women enjoy higher social status in the southern and eastern regions and such differences are highly correlated with fertility differentials. It is claimed that the most important factor in Kerala's privileged demographic situation has been the uniquely favorable position that women have traditionally held in Keralan society, and still enjoy by comparison to the severe disadvantages women face in much of the rest of India (Repetto 1994:17).
Moreover, women's education has been identified as the most important single factor in the determination of infant mortality, educated mothers reporting half the levels of those found among the uneducated (Hobcraft 1993; World Bank, 1993). Low women's status is linked with the excess female infant mortality found in some countries of South and East Asia (Sen 1990), as well as selective female abortion reported in China, responsible for very high sex ratios in these regions.
The freedom to make reproductive choices can be considered a starting point and a central manifestation of women's empowerment since it enables women to make choices in other spheres of life. Access to modern, safe, affordable and effective reproductive health services is undoubtedly essential to empowerment. Ongoing processes of globalization can be expected to make positive inroads into the cultural barriers which traditionally oppose gender equality and equity; female education, participation of women in decision-making at all levels and education of boys and men in more universal values all favor removal of gender barriers.
It can be expected that gender relations will continue to affect population growth throughout the world, because there is "...a close connection between women's well-being and women's agency in bringing about a change in the fertility pattern. Women in many third world countries have to face the lack of freedom to do other things that goes with a high frequency of births, not to mention the medical dangers of repeated pregnancy and high maternal mortality which is characteristic of many developing countries. It is thus not surprising that reductions in birth rates have been often associated with enhancement of women's status and voice, related to educational expansion and political activism of women" (Sen 1994:22).
What impact will this have on the environment? Since the promotion of gender equality and equity is likely to help reduce fertility, it will have an indirect effect on sustainability through the population/environment relation. Given that the latter is mediated by development, lower levels of population growth can interact favorably with changing patterns of production and consumption. Evidently, such improvements are, per se, insufficient since the critical issue is the kind of development which will emerge in coming years.
In short, gender issues can be said to influence critical, global and long-term environmental problems indirectly through their impact on population dynamics, whose influence on these same problems is, in turn, also indirect and conditioned by patterns of development. Regarding the impact of the empowerment of women, it can be expected to have an indirect effect on the secondary environmental problems via reduced fertility.
Empowerment and its impact on sustainability
Three interrelated propositions have been made to show the link between women's empowerment and sustainability. First, it has been contended that women have a greater moral commitment to the environment than men. According to Jiggins (1994), the female participants in the Women's World Conference on the Environment noted that one of the main reasons for their involvement in environmental activism was their concern for the well-being of future generations, and that male respondents ranked this interest much lower in their list of concerns. The rationale for this differential perception is supposedly the daily investment that is made to create a safe domestic environment for their children, which fathers, according to Jiggins, experience differently or not at all. Be that as it may, other studies have also shown that women tend to express higher levels of concern toward the environment than do men (Davidson and Freudenburg 1996).
Second, it has been argued that this greater commitment is reflected in the way women's grassroots movements have undertaken positive actions to protect the environment. The Chipko movement's success in saving forests from commercial tree fellers has been cited as an instance that demonstrates women's affinity to the protection of the environment and as evidence of the need to promote and to empower women's organizations for the advancement towards sustainability .
Third, it has recently been argued that, given their moral commitment, the existence of a critical mass of women in the decision-making process at all levels would make a significant difference in actions that affect the environment. The rationale is that women, by reason of their values and attitudes, could make a qualitative change in the decision-making process of institutions, provided a critical mass (30% or more) is attained (Zakharova 1996). Thus, given their moral commitment and their penchant for protecting the environment, the presence of women in specific institutions would make a significant contribution to the achievement of sustainable development. Consequently, their empowerment in the decision-making process would naturally lead to more sustainable practices.
These arguments all coincide on one feature: the existence of a natural link between women and nature, much along the lines advanced by the ecofeminists. However, even some of the ecofeminists have reacted against the assertions of biological determinism implied therein and argue that women's perceived affinity with nature is itself a cultural construct.
The issue may be one of perception rather than fact: women's reproductive functions and social roles, as well as the psychic structure based on them, makes women to be perceived (culturally) as being closer to nature (Ortner 1974, cited in Leach, Joekes and Green, 1995). However, this does not entail that women will always be more prone than men to make decisions that favour sustainability. It is the attributes that are culturally ascribed to them that are linked with sustainability. In this sense, it is in society's interest to propagate such attributes and values, but there is no reason to identify them with women only.
Moreover, it is obvious that environmental movements are neither exclusively nor mostly led by women. Numerous examples of indigenous groups attest to this. The fact that women were at the head of the Chipko movement took it to fame, but other concerned indigenous groups are more frequently led by men. For example, among the Kogi of northern Colombia, the male authorities believe that it is their obligation to maintain the ecological balance of the world, and to perform special daily rites to try to compensate for the white man's (whom they see as their younger brothers) nuisances that damage the planet and that compromise its future (Villarreal 1983).
Unquestionably, women's empowerment helps them deal with the impacts of environmental change, especially in poor degraded rural areas. It allows women to negotiate their extra work burden and thus attain a more balanced division of labour in a redefinition of roles. Also, if empowered, women can better face the health consequences of a deteriorating environment, through prevention and through better access to health care (Joekes et al. 1994; Kettel 1996). Because women's reduced control over resources allow them limited ways of dealing with degradation, and as empowerment means increased access to and control over resources, the latter provides a means of making up for detrimental impacts (Heyzer 1995).
However, it should be noted that most of the above discussion is germane to "secondary" environmental issues. The same arguments cannot be simply transplanted to critical environmental problems. Thus, there is no evidence that women in the developed countries use resources more sustainably than men in connection to critical environmental problems. Nor are there women's movements that effectively promote the drastic change in the consumption patterns of the rich throughout the world which would be needed to address the problems that compromise the future of the planet. Moreover, it is not at all clear that women in decision-making roles in the economic or political domain have clearly or universally adopted attitudes which are more coherent with sustainability.
Evidently, such arguments do not dispute the need to stimulate all of those cultural traits which strengthen the voice for sustainability and a greater concern with the future of the planet. Such traits have been more associated with women up to the present. However, the main point is that these traits do not arise from a biological makeup, but from a finite and changeable culture. It is crucial to understand that gender roles are themselves modified in the process of cultural change. To the extent that empowerment and gender equity leads women to assume more dominant roles in social, economic and political structures, they could stand to lose the cultural underpinnings for their superior intensity of environmental concern. To deny this would be to reaffirm the essence of biological determinism. Rather than defending this, it seems more urgent to promote environmental concern across the board.
The rural and traditional loci of the gender/sustainability agenda
The entire gender and sustainability discussion reviewed above is largely based on the situation of poor rural women and men from regions and countries which have not yet been significantly affected by the current process of modernization/globalization. By directing itself to the poor rural context as the scenario within which gender/environment interactions prevail, the dominant literature on gender and sustainability thus limits its relevance to less than half of humankind.
Indeed, there seems to be little point in discussing the gendered impact of environmental change and the direct management of environmental resources in rich countries, or even in most urban areas, particularly those in countries undergoing rapid globalization-induced transformation. Thus, for instance, it makes little sense to talk about the differential resource management role of the genders, where responsibility for critical/global environmental problems lies with type and level of consumption. Firewood, water and fodder fetching are generally not relevant issues in the division of labor which prevails in rich and/or urbanized societies, while the use of monofluorocarbons can hardly be associated with a single gender.
The same is true for the population contingents affected by trade liberalization and by the other economic changes sweeping the world in the current end-of-century scenario - whether or not such contingents live in rural and urban areas. Indeed, when the productive structure of rural areas becomes more directly linked to international markets, it is increasingly governed by a logic which transcends the traditional cultural values or the individual behavior of local women and men. As the globalization process advances throughout the world, the focus on women in such roles as fuelwood and water managers is bound to lose significance.
It is true that more than half of the world's population still lives in rural areas, much of that eking out a living in traditional agricultural activities; however, the proportions vary widely in different regions of the world, as does the significance of such rurality for traditional approaches to the exploitation and management of natural resources. In Latin America, most of the population is urban and has been so for several decades; moreover, precious few areas have not been seriously affected in one form or another by modernization. In Africa, most of the population continues to be rural and, in spite of rapid urban growth, overall levels of urbanization continue to be relatively low, while traditional patterns of agriculture occupy much of the population. Most other developing areas of the world are urbanizing rapidly. In Asia, a mixed scenario prevails but increasing segments of the population are being rapidly incorporated into non-traditional activities and lifestyles. Much of the gender-based discussion on local stewardship of natural resources or prevention of environmental degradation is relatively immaterial in the context of rapid urbanization.
This suggests that the agenda being promoted in the area of gender relations and sustainable development needs further specification. By focusing on the livelihood problems of women in poor rural households, this agenda is incommensurate with the nature and dimension of major environmental problems. At best, its main thrust is directed to the resolution of what we have called secondary or localized problems, while the root cause of critical global problems are not directly or effectively addressed.
Moreover, the narrow focus on women in poor rural households seems to inadvertently accept and perpetuate the notion that the world is, and will continue to be, divided into two unequal and inequitable segments. One half is made up of an urban-industrial, developed-country habitat, in which men and women both participate in modern sector activities. The other half is constituted by the poor and developing world, in which people will continue to eke out their subsistence in traditional agricultural activities during the foreseeable future; therein, women, the careful and privileged environmental managers, have the obligation of safeguarding nature for themselves and the rest of humanity. In such a scenario, the probable implications of the ongoing process of globalization are largely overlooked.
6. See for example 1969  The raw and the cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology. Vol. I. New York: Harper and Row; Mythologics. In four volumes published from 1969 to 1981. Tr. by J. & D. Weightman.. New York: Harper and Row.
7. For an extensive discussion of population/environment interactions, cf. Martine (1996).
8. In 1974 village women of Uttar Pradesh avoided the cutting of some 2500 trees that were to be felled by a commercial enterprise by joining hands and encircling them ('chipko'means to hug). A nation-wide and international movement arose and in 1980 Indira Gandhi issued a 15-year ban on felling trees in Uttar Pradesh (Chipko Information Center, cited in Rodda, 1991).