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Women are the key to conserving Mother Earth

by Stephen Hesse

Danielle Nierenberg may work in the shadow of the White House, but she is clearly more enlightened than the man who lives there. At the end of April, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute released a policy brief written by Nierenberg, a staff researcher. The title of her paper is a succinct statement of her thesis: “What’s Good for Women is Good for the World.”

Conversely, as Nierenberg illustrates, what’s bad for women is clearly bad for our planet. Women worldwide have yet to receive the same education, health care and societal respect that men receive, and as a result human society continues to fulfill only half its potential for environmental and social sustainability.

Prior to the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg this summer, Worldwatch issued a series of policy briefs. These were intended to highlight issues concerning the environment and development, and provide recommendations on key environmental and sustainable-development issues in preparation for the WSSD.

But while much of the rest of the world was engaged in pre-WSSD discussions, the United States was too fixated on war to take the summit seriously — a convenient excuse to ignore substantive and difficult discussion of the social and environmental issues that plague human society. Had Bush had the sense to lend an ear, he would have heard some wise suggestions coming from some very reasonable people about how to achieve environmental and economic sustainability. He might also have begun to realize that true national security for the U.S. — and all nations — will only be achieved when human society is on the path to global environmental sustainability. Irony, however, is not the topic of this column, the role of women in sustainability is.

No one can seriously argue that women share equally in the fruits and labors of our society. As Nierenberg points out, “Globally women earn on average two-thirds to three-fourths as much as men for the same work. In addition, women perform most of the invisible work — housekeeping, cooking, collecting firewood and water, childcare, gardening — that sustains households from day to day.” She notes that if we “counted” these “services” provided by women, “they would be valued at about one-third of the world’s economic production.”

Just as women’s work is invisible, so is much of their suffering. Nierenberg points out that women and girls throughout the world are plagued by violence in many forms.

“One in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime,” she writes, adding that in China and India alone, “An estimated 60 million girls are considered ‘missing’ because of sex-selective abortions, female infanticide and neglect.”

Incredibly, while all future generations are (literally) in the hands of women, women are often unable to decide when, or even whether, to have children. According to Nierenberg, “More than 350 million women worldwide lack any access to family-planning services, and more than 500,000 women die each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth.”

Whether born into a family in Chicago that can afford all the luxuries of life, or into a family in Calcutta that cannot, more babies mean more consumption. Period. Of course, consumption is both inevitable and essential, but unsustainable consumption is simply suicide. “Roughly 80 million people are added to the planet each year,” Nierenberg warns, and “the largest generation of young people in human history — 1.7 billion people aged 10 to 24 — are about to enter their reproductive years.”

Clearly, if we want sustainable consumption, we must also have a stable population. Treating women as equal partners in this task is essential for it to succeed.

So why isn’t legislation being passed to ensure women are paid what they are worth, protected from systematic violence and abuse, and given the family-planning services they need?

One reason is that most politicians are men, and men simply are not that aware of the prejudice, discrimination and structural obstacles women face. “Women are vastly underrepresented in all levels of government and in international institutions,” Nierenberg explains.

Just two years ago, women in parliaments worldwide held only 14 percent of the seats available. At the United Nations three years ago, “women made up only 21 percent of senior management,” she adds.

Of course women are trying to level the playing field, but the results have been mixed. The 1990s witnessed several major U.N. conferences that stressed the important role women play in promoting sustainable development — most notably the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

According to Nierenberg, “the Cairo Programme of Action reaffirmed women’s rights and their equal participation in all spheres of society as a prerequisite for better human development.” Nevertheless, she notes, “Gender myopia or blindness to women’s issues still distorts environmental, economic and health policies.”

Last spring, Nierenberg saw the WSSD as a chance for renewed commitment to change.

“The [WSSD] in South Africa is an opportunity for world leaders to eliminate these inequities by recognizing that what is good for women is good for the world,” she wrote.

“In addition to enhancing human rights, improving women’s lives has a whole range of side benefits — from lower population growth and reduced child mortality to better management of natural resources and healthier economies.”

Now, however, the WSSD is over and done, and these changes will have to come about through policymaking at national and local levels. Perhaps, though, this is all for the best, since the strongest roots generally take hold at the community level.

The problems themselves offer an outline for change. Nierenberg’s suggestions include ensuring that girls be able to attend and remain in school. Studies show, she writes, that “girls with more years of education not only have fewer children, but their health and the health of the children they do have is much better.”

She also stresses the need “to educate men and boys about the importance of gender equity and shared responsibility,” and to “enact and enforce strong laws that protect women from violence.” Laws in many nations, she points out, “entrap women in violent relationships or make it impossible to prosecute men for beatings, rape and other forms of abuse.”

To be sure that women’s needs are addressed, it is essential, too, to increase the number of women in public office and in international organizations.

As for population control, Nierenberg observes that at the ICPD in Cairo, “governments agreed to fund access to basic reproductive-health services for all women by 2015.” Ironically, she notes, “the world’s poorest nations are closer to meeting the goals of Cairo than the world’s wealthy countries — spending close to 70 percent of their committed levels. Wealthy nations, in contrast, have yet to reach even 40 percent of their Cairo commitment.”

The Bush administration, of course, may be planning to deal with population problems militarily, so let’s hope the other wealthy nations can come up with a better idea.