What women can do for the environment

by Cesar Chelala

The growing worldwide demand for resources is threatening the world’s environmental health to an unprecedented extent. Unless new policies are set in place, this situation could have devastating implications for human develop- ment. Significant among the possible options are massive campaigns, both at government and private levels, to educate people about how critical the situation is for human survival and for everybody’s quality of life.

In this context, women and children can be very active participants in the defense of the environment and can stop, or even reverse, the degradation of our natural resources. At a global level, there is growing awareness of the need to get women to contribute to the identification of environmental problems, as well as to help plan activities geared to the sustainable development of their communities.

In the past 200 years, industrial processes have caused increasing levels of pollution and the degradation of air, water and land. In addition to unrestricted exploitation of natural resources, unsound agricultural practices have had devastating effects on the environment and, as a result, on people’s health and quality of life. Women and children have been particularly affected.

Women, especially pregnant women, are particularly susceptible to several environmental risks. This is particularly true of those living in rural or marginal suburban areas in developing countries. In such situations, women have few choices about the kind of lifestyle they want to lead and fewer opportunities to change unsatisfactory conditions and to improve, at the same time, their families’ and their own health.

Because of their roles as home managers and economic providers, as well as their role in reproduction, women are susceptible to health problems and hazards in several situations. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants. Every step in the reproductive process can be altered by toxic substances in the environment. These toxic substances may increase the risk of abortion, birth defects, fetal-growth retardation and perinatal death.

Although women have long been considered passive recipients of aid rather than active participants in development, their role is crucial both to the economies of the developing countries and to the future of the environment. In that regard, as environmental educators and motivators for change, women are key agents in the processes leading to a more sustainable, and healthy, development of the planet.

Women are traditional protectors of the environment. A world survey on public attitudes toward the environment sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program showed that women, when compared to men, are more likely to choose a lower standard of living with fewer health risks over a higher standard of living with more health risks. The Platform for Action, adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, identified the need to involve women more actively in environmental decision-making at all levels, as well as to incorporate their perspective in all strategies leading to sustainable development.

The active participation of women in think tanks and in environmental training activities is allowing them to educate both the public and policymakers about the critical links between women, natural resources and their use, and sustainable development. In that regard, women have better access to local environmental issues and how to approach them than men. Women have often had a leadership role in reducing unnecessary use of resources, promoting an environmental ethic and recycling resources to minimize waste. In some regions, women are generally the most stable members of the community, since men frequently pursue work in other regions or countries. In those conditions, women are in a better position to safeguard the environment and ensure an adequate and sustainable allocation of resources.

Public opinion is one of the most important areas of work for promoting environmental concerns and interests. Women in local organizations have a firsthand knowledge of the impact of environmental degradation in their communities. Through their work with the media, women can help publicize regional examples of the abuse of the environment in their communities so as to raise awareness that can lead to more effective political action.

There is growing evidence that women in several countries around the world are taking central roles in the grassroots environmental movement. And there is increasing belief that development policies that do not involve women and men alike will not be successful in the long run.