United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women

E-forum on gender equality, environmental management and natural disaster mitigation

"How do Women Manage and Use Environmental Resources?"
2nd week summary

Our dialogue this second week centered on issues raised by women's relationship to environmental resources, hazards and disasters. Noting that the gendered division of labor situates women and men differently as environmental consumers and managers, contributors pointed out the disparate impact of degraded resources on women's time, energy, health, and well-being. They urged attention to how these broad patterns vary culturally and how women's extensive agricultural activities in particular contribute to food security.

Women's efforts to earn income and meet the needs of family members were seen by many to draw them toward "need based" use and conservation of vital resources, for example, in these accounts:

[P]rojects combining rain-water harvesting, micro-credit schemes for women, and environmental restoration are giving entire communities (mostly of women whose spouses have had to become migrant workers)a new lease on life. The level of commitment, energy and dedication that I witnessed there has been paralleled only by a project in Northern Kenya where women involved in a revolving loan scheme had gone beyond survival by taking charge of their lives.

Fainula Rodriguez, International Institute for Disaster Risk Management , Manila, Philippines

[C]onservation did not require any 'special' effort but was part and parcel of the way they used resources. . . Women both as consumers and managers of natural resources could maintain a required balance between the two. . .How medicinal herbs and plants were utilised is an example. Indigenous medicinal plants growing naturally in the forest areas were an important source for taking care of health concerns. Early days saw very rational ways of use, taking out only the part of the plant required (leaf, flower, root, stem, etc. ), letting the plant survive and continue to grow. This way there was enough 'supply' for all in need.

Madhavi Ariyabandu, Programme Manager - Disaster Mitigation, ITDG - South Asia

This connection (variously attributed to the gender division of labor, women's "intrinsic" values, and women's reproductive interests) helped commentators explain the very extensive involvement of women in environmental protection campaigns around the world. Examples were forwarded of the models and legacies created by women environmental leaders, known and unknown:

The tree hugging need [of the Chipko movement] has since eroded. One can still visit the area and see numerous nurseries and protected vegetation areas being organized by these local residents. They have fodder patches, and van panchayats (village forest governments). Men give full support to the initiatives, but these are primarily women driven. Most, if not all, members of the van panchayats are usually women, perhaps because the issue of collecting fuel wood and fodder concerns them more.

Anshu Sharma, SEEDS, India

[T]he community of East Maui (rural community with a concentration of native Hawaiian populations, and, by economic measures, generally poor) frequently becomes isolated by landslides and flooding. They recognized the potential problems, especially in major disasters, and formed a team to identify their risks, and use GIS to map available community resources. Without really knowing anything about disaster management, the team developed hazard response and evacuation plans and mitigation strategies, drawing in expertise and advice from every agency that would meet with them. Although the teams consist of men and women, if asked specifically about this project, I would only be able to refer you to four or five women.

Cheryl Anderson, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii

While women are especially likely to organize at local levels, it was argued that where women hold political office or have technical expertise they can and do shape resource policies. Others pointed out how rarely even professional women hold management positions in environmental agencies and government bureaus.

Significantly, the easy assumption that women always conserve and nurture natural resources was firmly rejected. Instead, a wide range of factors were seen to undermine women's ability to practice and promote sustainable environmental practices, including: lack of awareness or technical knowledge about disasters and hazards; lack of information about specific threats to environmental resources and mitigation strategies; the sheer desperation of women living in extreme poverty; the dependency of those trapped in refugee camps; limited political and organizational power; the displacement of local resources by outside relief assistance; consumerism, and market-driven economic development.

My personal experience of natural disasters is linked to the droughts in Mali and small floods in the internal delta of the Niger, as well as the earthquake in the Naples area. . . [T]he ways women use environmental resources differ according to their geographical location and stage of life. For example, their use of water and wood, as well as the use of the actual land is not always eco-friendly. An excellent example of this I witnessed in a refugee camp for 1,300,000 people in Goma (RDC), where for one and a half years, the women consistently cut down trees in the surrounding rainforest to obtain wood for a wide variety of primary needs. Once the camp was abandoned, it was found that huge areas of the rainforest had been plundered, giving rise to a geo-environmental disaster. Also, in modern societies. . . women use more water to clean the home. As they are constantly bombarded by advertisements to use more detergents, this results in pollution to underground water courses.

Augusta Angelucci, UNDP, Italy

Women's roles in conserving natural resources are well understood since hundreds of years in the Arab culture. Women in the region used to be born to manage the scanty water resources for

livestock rearing and growing medicinal plants they use to medicate their sick family members. They are accustomed to prepare for the flash floods and droughts. . .. It is the modernization of their culture that made them imitate the consumerism of European and wealthy societies where consumption is the name of the economic development game. They forgot their grandma's conserving behavior. . . Conserving water resources is a must in the region. . . Similar cases can be built with respect to energy and food resources with uncontrolled use as a way of showing our wealth and power over resources.

Samia Galal Saad, Advisor to the Minister of State for Environmental Affairs, Cairo, Egypt

The market-focused thinking and structures have forced people to think 'commercially' to sell things for survival. Thus, medicinal plants are now uprooted for sale by community members, and many are becoming extinct as a result. Similarly drought and dry periods are now regular features, and forests are cut indiscriminately for development purposes, for new settlements for selling, for more construction. Control is taken by 'outsiders,' water resources are drying up, there is less rain and change in weather patterns. Survival has become a struggle with increased risk levels. For women there is hardly any space to perform their management role. The circumstances are forcing them to put more emphasis on 'consumer' aspect of resources for sheer survival.

Madhavi Ariyabandu, Programme Manager - Disaster Mitigation, ITDG - South Asia

I participated in an effort to preserve a 500-year floodplain-and we did it by building a neighborhood-based grassroots coalition that helped raise $550,000 through contributions and grant-writing. . . The problem was that we only saved the one floodplain. Efforts to preserve

all the floodplains in a development code were thwarted by a pro-business change of government. Sadly, it will be the low income families (many headed by women) who will have to live in flood-prone areas.

Brenda Phillips, Department of Sociology, Jacksonville State University, Georgia, US

Contributors built on these observations to argue for a comprehensive, community-based and gender-aware approach to risk management. Their comments suggest this will entail new ways of thinking about risk management and what constitutes a disaster, local leadership, new training and research initiatives, and a more complex understanding of how women's environmental activities relate to hazards and disasters.

Even today, solving the drought crisis is more critical for many rural communities than rebuilding their homes shattered by the quake in Gujarat. . . The women in remote hill villages in the Himalayas spend hours every day just to fetch water, fuel wood and fodder. There is no drought. . . We definitely need to talk about the shocks (large disasters), but it is equally, perhaps more, important to talk about daily stresses.

Anshu Sharma, SEEDS, India

If some decision-making is shifted to local levels (communities and aggregate of communities), then women will have an opportunity. . . One good example of how women are now holding parity (half) in local councils has occurred in villages in Thailand. . . [W]omen naturally came to the foreground because they tend to volunteer their energies to improve their communities. Within 5-6 years. . . they reached parity and were learning to be community managers within the official framework, not only informally. In this case, issues of environment, disasters and development were the main topics.

Jeanne-Marie Col, United Nations

[T]hose concerned need to be involved in the diagnosis of the problem and in the development of mitigation plans. Identification of gender issues that prevent efficient and sustainable use of the natural resource base, or that prevent women and men from participating fully in the search for solutions to environmental problems is essential for any intervention designed to improve specific situations. . . [E]nvironmental emergencies are not always catastrophic and unpredictable. They are often built. If we can identify issues and impacts early, we may avoid the emergencies. If we identify gender-differentiated issues and impacts, we have a better chance of developing equitable and sustainable solutions.

Patricia Thomas, Gender and Social Issues Consultant, US

Women's work in agriculture... is often seen as an extension of her domestic responsibilities, rather than a separate economic activity. Distinguishing women's agricultural work from her other types of labour puts her in an economic category, which means that her participation in agriculture can be recognized in national labour statistics. Legitimating women's labour in this way makes it easier to advocate for training and education programs for women agricultural workers. These programs are essential if women are to become environmentally sound farmers.

Hilary Anderson, Women, Health and Development Program, Pan-American Health Organization

New relations were called for between local communities and outside experts, and new practical and intellectual tools, including gender analysis. Responders recognized the need for:

  • increasing women's awareness about environmental resources and the risk of disasters
  • building on vulnerability analysis to link poverty, gender inequality and environmental mitigation
  • sex-disaggregated data and qualitative data
  • new technical interventions such as GIS to increase knowledge among decision- makers about the social and economic impacts of disasters
  • more transparent and accessible data, e.g. vulnerability maps freely available through public libraries
  • rebuilding after disasters with "local champions" rather than depending on outside scientists
  • culturally-specific interventions building on the specific capacities of women in varying environmental and social contexts

Foreshadowing our final topic, this week's discussion made clear that the challenge of building more disaster-resistant communities is not simply administrative or technical but political, as both women and men must be empowered to act in ways that protect and sustain vital environmental resources.

Again, your thoughts on this topic are greatly appreciated and late responses still welcome-just post your messages under the second topic. As always, I ask for your help correcting errors or distortions arising from editing.

Elaine Enarson

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Division for the Advancement of Women -- DAW

Website: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
United Nations