An environmental gender agenda
Man is tampering with the buttons of the world’s climate machine and pushes the global ecosystem ever further to its limits. Or is it men? Let’s take a glance at two hotspots of damage to our natural system: On a clear morning, north of the city of Palembang on Sumatra, Indonesia, Ahmad kisses his wife Lia goodbye, to go logging in a forest, which has declined half over the last years. Likewise worldwide it is largely men, not women, chopping down tropical and boreal forest, thus responsible for 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions.
Or let us follow Joseph, who just leaves his wife Maricel for a day of fishing on the Philippine Island Malapascua, known to have lost most of its coral reefs already. It is men, again not women, overfishing our ocean, leaving 80% of global fish stocks fully or over-exploited.
Now, what can we learn from this? That, as so often, men trigger the gloom and doom in the world?
Gloom and doom wrought by men
Gloom, such as the ever accelerating loss of biological diversity – the combination and interactions of all life forms that have made Earth a uniquely habitable place for humans. A loss, accompanied by plummeting ecosystem services, such as food, medicines, clean water and soil stabilization, worth billions and billions of the global GDP.
Doom like a possibly six degrees warmer world by the end of the century, a world with more droughts, more storms, and more floods, with rising sea levels and less biodiversity.
Gloom and doom, which are intrinsically interconnected, through the effects of climate change on biodiversity, as well as changes in biodiversity and ecosystem functioning that affect climate change. Gloom and doom which put half of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity at risk, and as much as 88% of its coral reefs, to name only one example; which will shock health and livelihoods, especially in the region’s less developed nations, increasing poverty and vulnerability.
And for all this only men are the ones to hold accountable? Let us take this with a grain of salt.
Social roles and the environment
Stereotypes like the ability to multitask or reverse park a car aside, there are indeed some well-defined differences between the social roles that men and women play, and the power relations in-between. Notably, gender is not based on sex or the biological differences between men and women. Instead, gender is shaped by culture, social relations and natural environments, as Huisinga Norem of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization points out. Gender roles affect economic, political, social and ecological prospects and challenges faced by both men and women, resulting in different labor responsibilities, decision-making processes, and knowledge.
Such difference are also true for natural resource management, climate change and biodiversity conservation. The World Bank summarizes four main variations:
Especially rural women and men have different roles, responsibilities, and knowledge in managing natural resources. Ahmad is in charge of timber harvesting, while Lia collects medicinal plants and picks berries, commodities known as Non Forest Timber Products. Thus, they both use the forest –in a complementary way.
Moreover access to technology, information, and training is mostly targeted to men. Joseph attended a workshop on the impacts of dynamite fishing coral reef ecosystems, while Maricel was too busy cleaning, processing and selling the caught fish. Despite the fact, that the biggest amount of fish is lost post catch, providing a large potential for resource saving practices, as IUCN’s Global Senior Gender Adviser Lorena Aguilar highlights.
Gender differences also exist in rights and access to natural resources, including land, trees, water, and animals. Likewise, women are still absent from climate change and natural resource-related decision-making processes at all levels. Joseph for instance takes part in an ecotourism initiative for the island, while Lia has no chance to make her voice heard in Indonesia’s climate change negotiations.
Such gender differences point at the scale of the problem and its global environmental and social dimensions. To achieve sustainable development, as stipulated for example in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), both men and women have to be considered along the way. But we first need to focus on those that are less empowered: women.
Gender and Environment: A double-edge relation
Let us have a closer look at the two way relationship between women and the environment.
Firstly, vulnerability to the consequences of global warming and the destruction of ecosystems varies among gender. Vulnerability is to one part determined by the resources on which individuals depend, and, crucially, the entitlement of individuals to use these resources. In particular in rural areas both women and men are highly dependent on biodiversity resources such as fish or wood, while to a large extent, it is only men owning these resources. Moreover, deforestation, as in Ahmad’s and Lia’s forest, means that wood – the most widely used solid fuel – is located further away from their village. In poor communities in most developing countries, women and girls are responsible for collecting firewood, a physically draining task that can take 20 or more hours per week. As a result, Lia now has less time to fulfill her domestic responsibilities, earn money or learn to read. Also her girls are often kept home from school to help gather fuel, perpetuating their cycle of disempowerment.
As with biodiversity, climate change will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and create new ones, affecting women more severely than men. This is partly because in many countries they make up the larger share of the agricultural work force and partly because they tend to have access to fewer income-earning opportunities. Further, women often manage households and care for family members, which limits their mobility and increases their vulnerability to sudden weather-related natural disasters. In addition, the expected increase in temperature-related illnesses and deaths for example from malaria and dengue fever is likely to increase maternal mortality. Maricel is thus more vulnerable to climate change than Joseph, since she was not involved in the island’s typhoon preparedness training, she is at a higher health risk during pregnancy and less likely to find new occupation if rising sea levels constrain fishery.
Secondly, women play a different role in biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation. This is mainly due to the fact that women and men have knowledge about different things and different knowledge about the same things. Things like biodiversity, which comes in the form of the wealth of knowledge. Such traditional knowledge is controlled, developed and shared by women. Lia’s knowledge on biodiversity, such as wild ancestors of food, medicinal plants and domestic animals is much greater than Ahmad’s. She possesses, just like many other women, a large repertoire of “coping strategies” that they have traditionally used to manage climate variability. For instance is she a saver and managers of diverse seeds, more than 600 in her community, increasing her families’ resilience in case of droughts, amplified by climate change.
Empowering women to participate as equals in information sharing and generation, education and training, technology or financial assistance, has proved to make resource management and conservation more successful. As men are increasingly drawn to seek remunerated work away from their lands and resources women’s role in the management biological resources is ever more increasing.
The rocky Road to Empowerment
Despite such priceless contribution by women to save our climate and ecosystems, daunting challenges remain: Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, decries that inequality persists in gender wage gaps and unequal opportunities, in low representation of women in leadership and in continuing violence against women in all its forms. Two out of three illiterate adults are women. Girls are still less likely to be in school than boys. Every 90 seconds of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy. In a nut shell, women face some of the worst inequities in access to social services, land and other productive assets, which deprives them and the world of the realization of their full potential. ‘No enduring solution to the major changes of our day—from climate change to political and economic instability—can be solved without the full empowerment and participation of the world’s women’, underscored Michelle Bachelet at last year’s International Women’s Day (IWD).
Next week, on 8th of March, IWD’s 105th anniversary, it is important to keep that in mind, while celebrating the tremendous progress made.
Gaining Momentum: The Gender Agenda
And indeed, appositely to this year’s IWD theme, the Gender Agenda is Gaining Momentum:
During the past century, women have taken many steps forward towards legal rights, access to education or participation in public life – and to being stewards of the global climate and ecosystems.
Success can be seen in every region of the world on every level. Take the shores of the severely overfished Zambian Lake Tanganyika, providing livelihood for ten million people, where a local women’s association has turned their backs on fishing and now makes a decent living on rice farming. A story that could inspire Maricel and millions of other fisher folk in the Philippines.
Lia can look at India and Nepal, where recent research proves that community forests with a high proportion of women in key decision-making bodies had significantly improved forest conditions.
For the whole of Southeast Asia the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines, coordinates sustainable biodiversity management. Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change, as well as gender.
And also on the international level there is progress on this very link. “The third MDG is dedicated to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. But when we look at the other seven goals, it is clear that none of them are possible without the inclusion of gender considerations” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General. Unlike the UN climate change efforts, the Convention on Biological Diversity acknowledges precisely these gender considerations. The convention adopted a Gender Plan of Action in 2008, stimulating and facilitating efforts to promote gender equality and mainstream a gender perspective from the global to the national level. In the Philippines, for instance, the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan clearly states the importance of gender for the conservation of biodiversity and the equitable sharing of its benefits.
Let us hope, that this effort will empower Maricel who ends a hard day’s wearing work of processing fish, as the sun sets over the coral seamed Island of Malapascua.
And let us use the 8th of March to rise awareness that doom and gloom can only be prevented – a sustainable future can only be reached – by women amd men enjoying equality together, as Ms. Bachelet puts it. Only if the vigor of women, like Maricel and Lia, is included, only then the vastness and variety of the environment can be sustained – in the sense of Virginia Woolf: ‘It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?’