Population People

Posted December 1997

Gender and Sustainability: Re-assessing Linkages and Issues

by George Martine
FAO Advisor on Population, Development and Environment
UNFPA Country Support Team for Latin America and the Caribbean
Santiago, Chile
and Marcela Villarreal
Senior Population Officer, Sociocultural Research
FAO Women and Population Division
The information and viewpoints presented here are the sole responsibility of the authors. This document is also available as three smaller files beginning with Part 1

Presentation [1]

This paper deals with the relationship between gender and sustainability. For present purposes, sustainability is defined as the ability of humankind to live within the limitations of the physical environment, now and indefinitely into the future [2]. The main question asked here is - how, and in what ways, do gender relations impact on sustainability?

Several plans of action and conventions aimed at the full, equal and beneficial integration of women in all development activities, as well as at the elimination of gender discrimination, have been adopted by the international community in recent years. It is widely considered, by international development agencies, by women's movements, and by the specialized literature, that effective implementation of these plans and conventions will be of major significance in improving gender relations. In turn, it is argued that the empowerment of women will greatly improve the effectiveness of sustainable development strategies.

Nevertheless, there appears to be a hiatus between the nature of critical environmental problems which confront humankind and the potential impacts of improved gender relations. This paper argues that:

The paper begins with a discussion of the different types of environmental problems facing humankind and their main determinants; the dominant development trends in the current end-of-century scenario, and their probable implications for sustainability are briefly discussed within this framework. The central section of the paper examines the part played by gender relations in the aggravation or alleviation of different types of environmental problems. In this context, several interconnected topics are broached: the evolution in women's movements and in the understanding of gender relations; the impact of environmental change on roles of men and women; the role of women as resource managers; the relation of gender, population growth and environment; the impact of empowerment on sustainability; and, the rural/traditional loci of gender/sustainability issues. The final section argues the need for a truly gendered approach to countering critical environmental problems.

1. Levels in the environmental agenda: critical and secondary issues [3]

There are a great variety of environmental problems which constitute threats of widely-differentiated significance to the survival of humankind on planet Earth. A basic weakness of the dominant literature is its tendency to lump all environmental problems into the same undifferentiated category, without attempting to discriminate serious and generalized problems from minor and localized ones, or short-term issues from long-term threats. This failure makes it exceedingly difficult to gauge the significance or the real contribution of different factors or social actors to environmental degradation, or to the improvement of environmental conditions.

The main contention of this section is that in order to establish how, when, and in what ways gender issues have an influence on sustainability, it is necessary to differentiate between types and levels of environmental problems. More specifically, the influence of gender issues on environmental problems has to be evaluated in terms of the latter's degree of intensity, gravity and reversibility. In order to illustrate the importance of such a distinction, a simple dichotomous classification can be made. One side lists critical and universal environmental problems; the other catalogues secondary and localized or temporary problems. An attempt is then made to identify how gender issues affect each of these sets of problems.

For present purposes, critical/universal environmental problems can be defined as those which adversely affect humankind's very ability to survive comfortably on Planet Earth and which can be expected to pervade, sooner or later, all (or the majority) of the planet's inhabited sub-regions, given current trends. In addition, there is no known antidote or technology which can safely and economically counteract the effect of the problems described here as critical/universal in the foreseeable future.

By contrast, secondary environmental problems are those which either do not endanger humankind's very survival or threaten only a limited temporal or spatial segment of it. This category also includes problems which could eventually threaten all or a majority of the world's population if left unchecked, but for which political and/or technological solutions already exist or are in the offing.

There is evidently no generalized consensus as to the exact order or contents of environmental problems affecting humankind. Nevertheless, it can be suggested that the great majority of scientists would acknowledge that the more critical problems endangering humankind's survival on planet Earth include, at least, the following: the depletion of the ozone layer, global climate changes, the accumulation of toxic chemical or radioactive wastes coupled with the exhaustion of sinks, the human over-appropriation of biomass, and the loss of biodiversity.

Secondary problems, by comparison, include a wide variety of environmental crises of variable gravity, durability, extension and reversibility. They are variously caused by the use of inappropriate technologies, maladministration of natural resources, population growth, consumption patterns, poverty or, more likely, a combination of these factors. However, they are less acute and/or are restricted to a given part of the Earth's surface. Moreover, they are subject to reversion, correction or prevention through development, political will, increased investment by the public or private sectors and/or foreseeable technological breakthroughs.

This latter category would include such problems as individual instances of nuclear accidents and other specific forms of radioactive contamination, acid rain, air and water pollution, desertification and other forms of land degradation, depletion of natural resources, and floods, inter alia. Each of these is undoubtedly serious in and of itself. Moreover, several of these may also contribute to the formation of global problems in the long run; however, their spatial or temporal restriction, as well as their susceptibility to control and reversion, place them in a less critical class - at least for the present.

Types and levels of environmental problems
Critical/ global Localized / secondary
Depletion of the ozone layer

Global climate changes

Accumulation of toxic chemical or radioactive wastes coupled with the exhaustion of sinks

Human overappropriation of biomass

Loss of biodiversity

Acid rain

Air and water pollution

Desertification and other forms of land degradation

Depletion of natural resources


Individual instances of nuclear accidents and radioactive contamination


Such a taxonomy helps us to clarify the role which gender issues play in environmental problems. Given the dimensions of energy consumption and of non-renewable resources, of the emission of carbon dioxide, CFCs as well as other gases, and of the production of toxic wastes in developed countries, it is correct to assert that, at the present time, at least three of the five critical/global problems - depletion of the ozone layer, climate changes and the accumulation of non-disposable toxic and industrial wastes - stem largely from industrial civilization as practiced by the developed countries (and, increasingly, though not nearly as importantly at this time, by industrializing countries). The over-appropriation of human biomass is probably divided fairly evenly between developed and developing areas. Hence, only the loss of biodiversity is clearly associated with under-development [4].

By contrast, secondary/local/temporary problems are found, though in varying manners and proportions, in both developing and developed countries. Some of these (e.g. nuclear contamination, acid rain) are more characteristically found in developed regions whereas deforestation, erosion and desertification are more common in poor countries. Still others, such as depletion of natural resources and floods, are found in both, although often linked to different causes.

The main point to be retained here is that most of the critical/global problems listed above presently derive from the production and consumption patterns associated with industrialization; hence, they are largely attributable to "development" in high-income countries and, to a much lesser but growing extent, to economic growth efforts of the less-developed world. The environmental problems of poor rural countries are grave and deplorable yet, by themselves, do not threaten humankind's survival on the planet.

In the context of the present paper, it is of considerable interest to note that the type of environmental issues which have been associated with women, either as victims or as effective resource managers, are mostly of a secondary and local nature. That is, the environmental impacts that increase the burdens of women, or that have negative health consequences for women are NOT the result of degradation which is irreversible or, per se, likely to threaten humankind as a whole. Deforestation, land degradation and desertification - which are generally stressed as affecting women and yet are amenable to being improved by women's action - are all serious environmental problems yet, with political will and financial resources, they could be arrested and/or reversed. Moreover, it is of considerable significance that those countries which have achieved the greatest reduction in their gender gaps (the industrialized or developed countries) are currently responsible for the major forms of resource depletion and environmental degradation.

In short, since development as we know it today is the major threat to the environment, efforts to understand how gender relations affect environmental outcomes inevitably require examination of where development itself is going. In turn, this brings up the question - what is the framework within which economic growth efforts are taking place now and in the foreseeable future?

2. The current development model and its environmental implications

Every country hopes to improve the quality of life of its citizens through "development". The view of development which dominates such efforts worldwide, as we reach the 21st century, is market-based economic growth. Deregulation, structural adjustment, reduced government intervention, heightened trade and increased competitiveness - which together conform "the miracle of the markets" - are the crux of the development formula in the foreseeable future.

The greater or lesser acceptance of this formula by a growing number of the world's countries is allowing capital to seek the most favorable conditions for investment and production anywhere in the world. The resulting free flow of resources for purposes of increasing profit and productivity is the essence of ongoing economic globalization. What impacts will the globalization of economic activities have?

The consequences of ongoing reforms are, in many countries, clearly favorable for economic growth. On a world scale, significant boosts in production and consumption can thus be expected. Nevertheless, such growth will not be equally spread. Breaking down trade barriers will not generate a level playing field. The overwhelming thrust of the prevalent growth model, based on the "miracle of the markets", favors neither equity nor redistribution. In fact, it tends to promote concentration, both between and within countries. Historically-accumulated advantages - in the areas of financial or human resources, entrepreneurial savoir-faire, technological know-how, and, to a lesser extent, the availability of natural resources - will not only continue to prevail, but will also tend to increase in the context of globalized competition. Technological developments in leading countries can make the production of other countries obsolete or unnecessary.

For our purposes, the main issue is that the prospects for environmental outcomes vary by level and type of development. In rich developed countries, environmental degradation can conceivably be controlled in the foreseeable future. There, a combination of heightened environmental awareness, political commitment, technological development, low population growth and changes in the economic base from industry to services (with migration of polluting activities and dumping of toxic wastes not to be overlooked) can stabilize or even reduce environmental degradation of different sorts. The key issue which will ultimately determine environmental well-being there is the level and intensity of environmental commitment and the tradeoff with economic growth concerns.

The situation differs in newly-industrialized countries and others which have realistic perspectives for economic growth in the foreseeable future. There, development will, in all probability, be associated with escalating degradation - much of which will likely contribute significantly to global/critical environmental problems. Developing countries often prolong the life of obsolete and inefficient equipment. At the same time, the intensification of consumption - of refrigerators, automobiles and other environmentally-unfriendly industrialized goods - is an essential cog in the model of growth which is being universally adopted. Moreover, in newly-industrialized countries, environmental concerns tend to pale on an everyday basis, in comparison with the imperious need for economic growth. Therein, sacrificing a "little" environmental degradation and resource depletion right now does not appear to be a large price to pay for economic growth which will improve the plight of immense populations. At the same time, the relative lack of competitive technological advances or of other comparative advantages may impel them to exploit natural resources and to pollute more in order to bridge the competitive gap.

Finally, a number of "poor and deprived countries" have a potential role in the global environmental picture which belies their reduced size and lack of economic weight. Poor countries with scant prospects for economic competition or growth in the standard mode will be tempted to use their lack of environmental awareness as a proxy for comparative advantages. Environmental considerations and precautions in such countries tend to be perceived as superfluous by comparison to the urgency of survival. Concern with pollution and degradation is largely seen as a prerogative of the rich.

Given the economic interest of firms from industrialized countries to externalize the costs of environmental quality by migrating to other countries or by dumping their solid and toxic wastes there, globalization can constitute a main obstacle to both the development of environmental technology and to the adoption of effective environmental control on a world-wide scale. Institutional fragility, as well as absence of environmental information and awareness, increases the probability that poor countries will accommodate polluting activities or toxic dumping, and/or overlook the deleterious health effects of certain types of economic activity.

The bottom line is that future environmental outcomes depend fundamentally on the manner in which economic growth is pursued and the extent to which it is attained during coming years. Without question, the overwhelming economic force in the end-of-century scenario is liberalization of trade and the consequent globalization of economic activity. It is spreading new forms of economic activity and resource exploitation to most parts of the world. In the process, traditional patterns of production and interaction with the natural atmosphere are being disrupted at an accelerated pace. Whether the intersection between private economic interests and the intense quest for growth by individual countries will somehow result in improved environmental conditions is a matter for speculation which transcends the limits of this paper.

For present purposes, two points need to be emphasized. First, that the evolution of critical/global environmental problems will depend on how the development process unfolds. Second, that the discussion of how gender relations affect critical environmental outcomes has to be framed within the context of the dominant processes of economic globalization.

3. Current issues in gender and sustainability

The attempt to disentangle the interactions between gender and sustainability is confounded by definitional problems as well as by common biases in the literature. Current difficulties, analyzed below, include:

Changing concepts and agendas: the evolution from women-in-development to gender equity and equality [5]

Interpretation of women's roles and gender relations has been marked by shifting positions and changing political priorities over the last few decades. Though the specific contents of their actions have varied, the central thrust of women's movements has generally involved denouncing women's oppression and advocating women's rights and equality. The impact of such movements on social organization, (over the last hundred and some years in Anglo-Saxon countries, over the last 30 years in developing countries), is indeed impressive. "Feminism (N.B. - defined herein as the political expression of women's movements), has been one of the most inspiring and subversive critical analyses and practices of this century. Its opposition to the dominant modes of production and politics, its re-evaluation of accepted ways of thinking and behaving, its critique of culture and everyday life is derived from a wide variety of positions which sometimes intersect and at others are contradictory" (Braidotti et al. 1994:59).

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 [1985]; Braidotti et al. chapters 4 and 5 [1994]). 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.

Interactions between gender and sustainability

In this section, a critical look is taken at the principal arguments which can be found in the literature concerning the interactions between gender and sustainability. These can be grouped around five main themes: the role of women in environmental change; women as resource managers; women and population growth; the effect of empowerment on sustainability; and, the rural/traditional loci of gender/sustainability issues.

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 [6], 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 [7]. 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 [8].

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.

4. Gender relations and sustainability: Overview and discussion

The main question addressed in this paper is whether women's empowerment and higher levels of gender equity would promote and/or guarantee sustainability. The foregoing discussion suggests that women's empowerment, though clearly a justifiable objective in and of itself, can make a limited contribution to long-term sustainability. The problems which are compromising humankind's ability to survive on planet Earth stem mainly from the current development model and will not be eliminated by simply enhancing gender equity and equality. In fact, those countries that have achieved greatest progress towards gender equity are also responsible for most critical environmental problems; therein, effective environmental concern also does not appear to be related to levels of empowerment. Gender discrimination and inequality do not appear to have significant implications for either the globalization of industrial civilization, nor for the predominant forms of production and consumption which characterize it. In short, though empowerment is a justifiable objective in and of itself, it is insufficient to guarantee long-term sustainability.

This does not deny that gender questions are important in the etiology, the characteristics and the solution of many secondary environmental problems, particularly at the local level in poor and developing countries. Moreover, women are indeed the principal victims of many degraded local environments, including the very households of the poor, whether in urban or rural areas. In many parts of the world, gender discrimination, which affects access to land rights, to education, to health services, to equal employment, to participation in decision-making and to other basic rights, has real significance for local forms of environmental degradation. It also places women in greater jeopardy, at work or in the home. Environmental risks of different types are liable to have a greater impact on women's health as well as to increase women's burdens in the health care domain. Gender equity favors freedom of reproductive choice and thus lowers fertility. At the same time, given prevailing cultures and the consequent division of labor in many countries, women do often act as managers of natural resources and are primary producers and consumers, recyclers of domestic wastes and so forth. Nevertheless, it is essential to perceive that gender issues do not have a significant direct role in the genesis of critical environmental problems at the global level.

The dominant literature has taken a different stance. Its bottom line, as stated by one critic, appears to be that: "If only women and the environment were considered in development practice, the environment crisis would be solved....Rarely is a connection made between macro-economic and political processes: overconsumption of natural resources by the few in the North and poverty of the many in the South" (Braidotti et al. 1994:96). This literature has focused largely on the poor and traditional rural context, which is relevant to less than one half of humankind; by concentrating only on women, it reduces its scope to about one quarter. On a substantive level, this literature fails to address the critical issues which face humankind in the end-of-century development scenario.

Far from having a true gender approach, the literature has centered on the effects of environmental change on women as victims or as resource managers. This overlooks the fact that both the relation that women have developed with nature, and the attributes that would make them develop more sustainable practices, are culturally defined and thus evolve with cultural change. In fact, the roles of resource managers are gender roles that vary from setting to setting and over time within the same setting. Environmental change has itself been a source of gender role changes.

The assumption of the existence of innate attributes that favor sustainability amounts to grounding social characteristics in biology, and therefore defies the very concept of gender. In analyzing sustainability, it is important to take women into account, but there is also a need to include men in the analyses, as well as the relations between men and women. The literature fails to highlight the fact that environmental change also affects men, though differentially. Future studies should shift from a focus on women to a true gender approach. Gender roles are culturally constructed and they change with changing circumstances.

From the standpoint of sustainability, the main point suggested by this discussion is that it is essential to promote both empowerment as well as the cultural traits which benefit sustainability. Instead of re-asserting culturally-shaped traits as biologically-determined, more attention should be focused on promoting all avenues to sustainability. Moreover, it is ultimately essential not to lose sight of which problems are really compromising the future of the planet. Both men and women will have to work hard at developing the values and fostering the attitudes and behavior patterns consonant with more sustainable forms of development.

At the same time, more systematic reflection on the potential, possible and desirable rectification of the dominant development model is thus the primary consideration in efforts to favor sustainability in the medium and long range. Realistically, what factors can be expected to contribute to this "revision" of the development model? In the current scenario, wherein the ethos of the "miracle-of-the-markets" has enormous political clout, the dominant viewpoint is that market factors will eventually provide the necessary correctives. An alternative answer is that environmental awareness and commitment have to be fomented. These two options merit further discussion.

The view of this paper is that blind faith in the capacity of market forces to prevent and/or regulate environmental damage is an extremely dangerous attitude for the future of humanity. The majority of economists who take the trouble to analyze the relations between markets and the environment actually end up concluding that, at least at the present time, market forces do not have built-in mechanisms for environmental protection. There are too many intangibles for price mechanisms to work effectively. "Global environmental costs" are recognized to be "a pure case of a market failure" (Panayotou 1994:167). Moreover, "consumer sovereignty" is by definition short-range; only a small parcel of all market forces are oriented to the long-term view and are willing to forego immediate returns in favor of long-range or societal benefits. Globalization of economic activity, by stepping up the pace and the stakes of competition, increases the risk that environmental corners will be cut.

If market forces cannot be counted on to produce the necessary motivation, what other factors can provide the impetus for the correction of the current course of development? The principal answer has to lie in the qualitative and quantitative growth of environmental awareness. Better arguments will have to be conceived in order to convince more people of the need to re-assess the development process.

It is true that considerable environmentally-friendly technology has been developed by the private sector over the last quarter century. However, it would be naive to attribute this to the free play of market forces. Environmental safeguards began to be introduced in recent decades, not because they were profitable, but because environmentally-aware groups generated enough political momentum to force changes in production and/or waste collection - often after violent struggles with business interests. Almost invariably, the initial reaction of industrial and business concerns accused of pollution and degradation was to deny the facts, to hide the evidence and to persecute the accusers. Only after environmental indignation had spread to other segments of the population were practices changed and new technology incorporated.

There is no reason to believe that future outcomes will be different. To the extent that consumers are concerned and environmentally aware, they can exert a significant influence on local, national and global environmental outcomes. Undoubtedly, large corporations with their financial and technological resources who can profit from technological greening can have a significant impact on environmental outcomes. But without pressure from consumers, concern with short-term profits will almost invariably lead to cutting environmental corners. In turn, pressure from consumers will only arise and persist if there is widespread environmental awareness based on good arguments and credible information. Future outcomes will thus depend on the strength of environmental concern.

Unfortunately, the future dynamism of environmental movements is unpredictable. After steady growth in environmental concern from the 1960s to the 1980s, the last few years appear to have witnessed a relative slump in consciousness raising (Dowie 1996; Tokar 1997). Part of the problem may be that issues have proven to be too complex for continued massive mobilization of public opinion. Environmental problems, at both the national and world level, have increasingly shown themselves to be more difficult than had originally been touted in the romantic dawn of environmental activism. Tradeoffs and conflicts of interests in environmental cleanup have been detected.

Whatever the reason for the current lethargy, environmentalism needs a new jolt of energy: women's movements could provide the stimulus. Just as in the case of environmental management, women do not have any inherent or genetic advantages in promoting environmental awareness. Nevertheless, culturally-determined circumstances have historically combined to make women a most vocal and effective force in 20th century social change. Thus, at this particular moment in time, we can envisage women's movements as potentially playing a primary role in the promotion of sustainability. Feminism has repeatedly proven capable of breaking down some of the most strongly entrenched and apparently-indestructible social structures. If it were now to turn their attention systematically to the environmental plight of our Planet, it could become the most important single force in the transformation to sustainability.

In order to assume this role, however, postures founded on disordered truths, half-truths and ideologically-rooted arguments must be eschewed in favor of factual and defensible positions. The contention that there is a universal and significant relationship between gender relations and sustainability, or that putting more emphasis on women as natural resource managers will resolve environmental problems that compromise humanity's survival, detracts attention from other more promising and pressing avenues for social mobilization.

Moreover, strategies pertaining to different levels of generality must be clearly differentiated. One finds an ubiquitous tendency, both in the environmental movement and in the feminist literature, to discuss issues which refer to individual actions and local resource management in the same breath as global environmental threats. This absence of hierarchical discrimination ends up weakening both levels of arguments. It is thus important that policy suggestions be founded on a clear perception of differences in levels of generality and on the efficacy of different actions.

In practice, it is much more enticing for donors and activists alike to focus attention on local-level problems, projects and individual actions, which provide demonstrable results, than to try to grapple with macro-level issues. However, if we accept, as appears reasonable, that critical, global threats to the environment are fundamentally attributable to the current globalized model of development, then local-level actions have limited scope and, moreover, can eventually be neutralized by events occurring in the wider society or in the world as a whole. Consequently, curbing the crisis will eventually require broader and more collective effort, aimed at understanding global critical issues and acting upon them.

The main problem in generating this sort of consensus for thought and action does not appear to derive from lack of interest in the topic, but rather from its very complexity. In this domain, there are no easy one-time solutions or established precedents which tell us what needs to be done nor how to go about it. Activists, along with politicians and public opinion, abhor complexity. Hence, focusing on specific and manageable causes which can be readily apprehended and applauded by all, constitutes an understandably attractive alternative for would-be activists. Within this framework, focusing attention on women as victims of environmental problems or as privileged interlocutors with nature, is much more appealing than discussing the probable consequences of distinct models of growth, or of trying to understand the impacts of increased trade on global environmental problems, or their impact on gender relations. Nevertheless, women's movements can and should play a critical role both in the clarification of key issues and in mobilizing society towards holistic concerns which reach beyond immediate and local-level situations.


1. An earlier and more elaborate version of this paper served as background document for the United Nations Workshop on Women, Population and Sustainability, held in Santo Domingo from November 18-22,1996. The authors wish to thank the participants in this Workshop who, along with Jacques du Guerny, Alain Marcoux, Belkys Mones, Virginia Ofusu-Amaah and Rodrigo Vera provided helpful comments.

2. We prefer to focus on sustainability as defined here rather than on "sustainable development" which is used in a wide variety of ways. Some of the definitions do not even consider the physical environment, referring to social or political aspirations such as equity, governance, justice, etc.. The aspiration to "broad-based sustainable development" (cf. Weaver, Rock and Kusterer 1996) is shared by the authors of this paper but it would be impractical to deal with all of these elements here.

3. This and the following section draw heavily on Martine, (1995 and 1996).

4. This occurs because only the Southern Hemisphere has any biodiversity left to speak of. Even then, efforts at modern agricultural growth through the adoption of Green Revolution technology in various countries of the Southern Hemisphere are probably much more instrumental than population growth or poverty in total biodiversity loss.

5. During recent years, women's movements have waged an intense debate over the concepts of gender equity and gender equality. To our knowledge, no satisfactory compromise on meaning and relative importance has been worked out to the satisfaction of all interested parties. Different institutions and associations advocate the pre-eminence of one or the other based on different assumptions and definitions. Without attempting to influence the debate, the two are simply utilized in cumulative fashion in this paper.

6. See for example 1969 [1964] 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).


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