Global Environmental Change: Avoiding the Perpetuation of Inequalities

As we celebrate women’s political, economic and social achievements on the 103th International Women’s Day on 8 March, all of those who have contributed to making the world a more equal and gender-friendly place deserve to be congratulated. In the realm of global environmental change, we should applaud a gender-sensitive approach that both recognizes women’s specific vulnerability and includes their strengths. Nevertheless, this blog cautions against an approach that is too fixated on categories of people, as such an approach mayperpetuate existing inequalities among various vulnerable populations rather than serving its original purpose.

There is growing recognition of women’s role, particularly rural women, as productive actors in promoting sustainable development and in improving resilience to environmental disasters. For instance, through daily contact with farming, many women have developed specialized knowledge of planting and harvesting, even in times of water scarcity. To deal with the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, the experience of women in building defenses to houses and finding alternative methods for fuel, water and food demands greater attention.

In addition, women are directly affected by and can usually witness the consequences of global environmental change in the form of climate change, land degradation, biodiversity loss, and urbanization. Many would be expected to take greater interest in generating minimal impact on the environment than those whose livelihoods do not depend directly on their immediate environment. Because of the contribution women make and their potential to do much more, they deserve greater acknowledgement and should be entitled to the financial gains associated with, for example, the extraction and use of natural resources that they contribute to.

In my opinion, the growing recognition of women is also reflected in that International Women’s Day seems more visible and widely celebrated worldwide than Children’s Day, International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, International Day of Older Persons. The subjects of these days make up vulnerable populations in times of global environmental change, particularly during conflicts and disasters and the periods immediately after. Furthermore, these vulnerable populations tend to carry extra burdens in developing contexts.

There are significant similarities between women and these other vulnerable populations, at least in relation to global environmental change. First, they are commonly affected by and tend to be trapped in a vicious circle of negative impacts. Many women lack access to adequate information for planning, to education, and to coping mechanisms such as credit, training, and resources for emigration. It would be reasonable to assume the applicability of these limitations to other vulnerable populations. Second, women’s contribution to their households and communities are not always properly recognized, as they cultivate land over which they hold no formal tenure rights and collect fuel and water for subsistence purposes. A similar comment could be made about children who (are forced to) work on plantations and in factories under treacherous conditions.

The same is true for indigenous peoples whose ties to their land and efforts to preserve the land are not acknowledged, and whose land is subsequently taken away by multinational corporations. Thirdly, the underrepresentation in political decision-making is often a shared characteristic among women, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples too.

Finally, some eco-feminists such as Vandana Shiva contend that women’s attitudes towards preservation of creation are inherent to their very nurturing nature and their closeness to nature. It may be argued that even this trait is shared by indigenous peoples and elderly people that possess holistic and traditional knowledge on and retain their own culture of living in harmony with the environment.

Taking a gender-sensitive approach to deal with global environmental change could be instrumental for recognizing the different needs and concerns of women and men. Nevertheless, where there is little or no deliberation, this approach could potentially undermine its own goal as an arbitrary division between men and women – ‘women are always the subsistence workers while men are always the formal wealth creators’ – despite real-life dynamics.

Other characteristics such as age, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, and disability are equally important and should not be overlooked. Moreover, these constructed categories are not static and should not be treated as such.

I could not agree more with the United Nations theme for this year’s International Women’s Day “Equality for Women is Progress for All”. Therefore I invite you not only to celebrate this important day but also to actively participate in the daily fight against gender inequalities and the promotion for more rights for women, bearing in mind that women’s role is not confined to helpless victims of global environmental change but also includes those who are powerful agents in combating the negative consequences of such change.

At the same time, we should not forget that there are other affected vulnerable populations that also deserve attention. Without eroding existing work to empower women, approaches to addressing challenges posed by global environmental change should also take into account the needs and capabilities of all the groups mentioned above and not entrench the division further or to construct more sub-categories. No one should be neglected in planning strategies to combat climate change and environmental degradation.

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