Perhaps after this meeting we have to conclude that the glass is half empty, perhaps it is half full?


I remember well the situation 10 years ago, here in this same UN building, here in this same underground location. A room (which even looked smaller to me than the NGO meeting rooms now) was fully packed with women, from all regions of the world – it felt just as hot in that environment as it does these days; at the table – I only remember there was one table the rest of us were standing – was with her red hat – the ‘captain’ of the group, Bella Abzug, giving instructions on how to handle delegate A, B or C, or on what to fight for. We had Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva, Jocelyn Dow, Thais Corral and Chief Bisi around. The women’s caucus was one of the few caucuses (except of the ones from the NGOs)- and we all hurried there every morning to discuss texts, interventions and strategies.


Now 10 years later, we still do the same things, in the same environment, with the same spirit of commitment, but only partly with the same people. There is no particular leader, all of us take charge from time to time, and many young women (like Rebecca Pearl) are around to work hard and to get things done.  Haven’t we come any further? Or is history repeating itself?


In November 1991, 1,500 women from 83 countries had come together in Miami to share their success stories, to judge violations of women’s environmental rights (the tribunal) and to make up their own agenda: Women’s Action Agenda for a Healthy Planet.

And during the UNCED in Rio women were very visible, in the meetings (Mr. Strong was a great supporter of women’s participation), in the corridors and most of all, in the Women’s Tent or ‘Planeta Femea’. We left Rio de Janeiro with Principle 20 (of the Rio Declaration) in our hands: “Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.”  And in the telephone directory tick Agenda 21, we had chapter 24 “Global Action for Women towards Sustainable Development”, made up of 11 commitments and with specific recommendations to strengthen the role of women in sustainable and beneficial development. And with 145 other references to the necessary steps to be taken from a gender perspective.


We had lobbied, together with the NGOs and indigenous groups, for many more innovative ideas to be included in these Rio results, so we came home a bit disappointed. Now, looking back after ten years, I must conclude that we gained a lot at the UNCED in Rio, and that women as well as gender issues had for the first time in history been put high in the overall political agenda.


What happened with these good intentions, and how does the sustainable development world look now after ten years through a gender-eye?  In the Dialogue paper of women as major group (prepared by women’s groups and published by the WSSD secretariat for Prep.Comm.2) we reviewed progress made since Rio, and came to the following conclusions.


In several international meetings following Rio, gender aspects of and women’s role in development have been recognized: the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), the World Summit on Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995), the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) and the UN Conference on Human Settlements (Istanbul, 1996) and the World Food Summit (Rome, 1996). For example the Ministerial Declaration of the International Conference on Freshwater (December 2001): “Water resources management should be based on a participatory approach. Both men and women should be involved and have an equal voice in managing the sustainable use of water resources and sharing of benefits. The role of women in water related areas needs to be strengthened and their participation broadened.”


There are uncountable international and national documents in which the gender dimension of sustainable development and poverty eradication is at least mentioned and since 1992 a wide range of studies have described and analyzed the different roles and responsibilities that men and women have regarding natural resources management and environmental protection.

And so can we continue with summing up good intentions and better understanding. However, few governments have started integrating gender aspects into their environmental policies. Interesting examples can be found in Central America, and Colombia.


If you look at the reality of these days, however, you have to conclude that still a lot has to be changed to really be able to talk about gender mainstreaming: at a water and conflict session yesterday evening in this building (not the one on integrated water resources management and gender from Monday) there were only men participating, and when asked about the gender aspects in their work they could not give any answer. The original Chairman’s paper that came out of Prep.Comm. II, was almost completely gender-blind, notwithstanding all the language that women’s groups and others had contributed on that issue. At national level the cooperation between departments dealing with environment and of those dealing with social and gender issues is still very limited. At the COPs of the Climate Change convention you hardly see any women participating; and when asked about the gender dimension of climate change, many will wonder where you are talking about. And even in many environmental and sustainable development organizations (NGOs) the integration of gender in policies and practice is still very far away – although there are good exceptions, such as IUCN Central America, and the Multistakeholder Forum for our Common Future. On the other hand, a myriad of women’s organizations have taken up sustainable development as one of their key areas: WEDO, WECF, Neth.Council of Women…and many more.

What you can learn from such cases is that not only institutional arrangements should be in place, but there are also some very dedicated people, who understand the importance of the issue, who lead the organization in that way. Real change really sometimes depends on some visionary people.


There is still no gender balance in meetings and organizations on sustainable development: as you can see here in New York – most delegations are mainly made up of men and most heads of delegation are male (exceptions: the Netherlands….) – if we would have numbers from Rio we might be a bit ahead of these days; in the NGOs present here the number of women seems to outreach the number of men. Many of the podia these days are still all-men’s panels, with sometimes one woman on board (see the WSSD Bureau).


In the past 10 years women’s groups all over the world and at all levels have been very active on/organizing for sustainable development and thereby enhancing empowerment: that not new….for example already in 1950 Nakabaru Women’s Society in Japan started protesting against pollution by the Kitakyushy Industrial zone, and from that an anti-pollution movement grew that was promoted by women. An initiative worth mentioning here is that the female ministers of Environment have organized themselves as a group last March in Helsinki, and intend to bring their concerns and ways of thinking to the WSSD and beyond Johannesburg.


We have the availability of more gender-specific information, data and instruments (such as gender impact assessment, gender budgeting and auditing); although still much more needs to be developed (such as gender specific SD indicators) and – even more important – to be applied.


Gender mainstreaming is not only about more women participating in the SD arena, but also about getting women’s concerns and ideas on the agenda. It has also to do with the way of thinking, of organizing, of looking at things. Of not only putting equal access to land and water resources on the agenda, but also acting according these lines and making law reform and land reform happen in favor of women It is about securing women’s health and security, of ensuring women’s rights, about demilitarization, promotion of sustainable agriculture and energy, and about equal information sharing and respecting for women’s needs, priorities, knowledge and wisdom.


Mainstreaming gender into SD asks for institutional arrangements and high level commitment and clear policies. Not (only) for an isolated, compartmentalized unit (how important such a unit might be), but for true gender responsibility and accountability of all departments. This means: having gender sensitive people at all levels of an organization.    



* The glass is half empty: yes – as long as there are so many people living in poverty - the majority of which are women; as long as women are being marginalized by processes of impoverishment (incl. in many places privatization of public goods and services), by violence and conflicts, and by disrespect of their rights.


* But also half full: yes – as we see what we have gained already: a lot of commitment has been made, respect is expressed and the gender dimension is becoming visible more and more, instruments and mechanisms are available, and a lot of enthusiasm among younger women of all cultures and backgrounds gives us new hope in the future.


At least the glass seems to be filled! 


However this also means that:

Ø      We have to stay alert, the attention for gender issues always tends to fade away.

Ø      We have to keep the engendered (main)stream going, in the way not only men, but also women want it to go.


As Bella Abzug (1920-1998) expressed it so eloquently:

Women do not want to be mainstreamed into a polluted stream. We want to clean the stream and transform it into a fresh and flowing body. One that  moves in a new direction – a world at peace, that respects human rights for all, renders economic justice and provides ad sound and healthy environment.”




Irene Dankelman (Women’s Environment and Development Organisation, University of Nijmegen, Netherlands Platform for Johannesburg)


At: DAW/WEDO side event at Prep.Comm.III, New York, April 3rd 2002.