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close this bookWomen in Human Settlements Development - Getting the Issues Right (HABITAT, 1995, 60 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentForeword
View the documentWhy Focus on Women?
View the documentSome Basic Definitions
View the documentFact Sheet
View the documentPlanning and Management: By and for Whom?
View the documentHousing Policy: Starting Right
View the documentTowards a Safer Environment
View the documentA Place of Her Own: Women and Land
View the documentDesigning Housing to Meet the Needs of All
View the documentWomen and Finance
View the documentNetworking: Sharing Knowledge and Experiences
View the documentInformation: Equal Access, Equal Control
View the documentPolicy Proposals
View the documentSome Questions for Discussion
View the documentSelect Bibliography

Towards a Safer Environment

In the last decade, and especially in the years leading to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, the deteriorating environment has been a major cause for concern for governments, the United Nations system, citizens’ groups, inter-governmental organizations and communities all over the world. In the industrialized countries the issues have mainly revolved around environmental problems brought about by rapid technological and industrial advances, such as toxic wastes, environmental pollution and climate changes. In the developing countries, the issues have tended to revolve around environmental problems brought about by people’s abuse of the very environment on which they depend for survival, such as resource depletion, deforestation, lowered water tables and environmental degradation, among others.

“The real human face of (the current) environmental crisis is the face of WOMEN.”

- Srilatha Batliwala, in Women and Natural Resources State of Indian Environment, 1984-85, published by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

The destruction of the environment is not only an ecological issue but a critical housing issue as well. In rural areas around the world, a large majority of people depend directly on nature for building materials. Commercialization and/or destruction of important indigenous building materials such as wood and straw means that poor people who cannot afford to buy building materials are systematically being unplugged from their traditional life-support systems.

In unplanned informal urban settlements, environmental degradation is both a cause and a result of poor-quality housing. Lack of basic services and infrastructure (water, sewage) poses environmental hazards which, in turn, affect the quality of life of those communities. For instance, if there are no sanitation facilities in a settlement (resulting in environmental and health problems), the community living there has no choice but to build their own facilities, without proper engineering techniques, financial aid and government assistance. Such services may be sub-standard and, therefore, potentially equally hazardous to the community.

These problems have particular implications for women. As primary users and providers of services in urban and rural (especially informal) settlements, women are constantly exposing themselves to health hazards brought about by unsanitary and toxic environments. In both rural and urban areas, women are the primary users of house space and are responsible for running the house on a day-to-day basis. They are the main providers of life-support systems-food, fuel, water, building materials-for their families and are, therefore, the first to feel the adverse effects of environmental degradation.

Environmental degradation has particular implications for women, both rural and urban.

It is, therefore, not surprising that long before the environment became a popular theme for seminars and conferences, women were spearheading campaigns to protect the environment on issues ranging from toxic-waste dumping to deforestation. This is because women, often being the poorest, and definitely being the least literate and the most powerless in most countries, are major victims of environment abuse. In India, forests are considered valuable not only because they are life-sustaining, but also because trees are believed to have unique spiritual and healing powers. Yet forests that once provided food, fuel, fodder, medicine and spiritual comfort to rural women and their animals are being destroyed at an alarming rate. The commercialization of forests has turned vast tracts of land into privately-owned, single-species tree farms owned and controlled by men.

However, in the 1970s, an inspiring grassroots movement gained momentum in the hill district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India when rural women began physically embracing trees so that loggers could not cut them. The Chipko Movement, as it is called, (Chipko means to hug) succeeded in articulating women’s need to have access and control in the management of forests on which they depend for day-to-day survival. This kind of environmental activism is not new in India. As early as the seventeenth century, a woman called Amitra Devi led 300 villagers into a forest where they lost their lives while trying to save sacred trees by clinging to them.

Elsewhere in India, a woman called Medha Patkar has been protesting the building of a staggering complex of 3600 large and small dams over the Narmada River by organizing hunger strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, road blocks and rallies. If the dams are built, they will submerge 245 villages and thousands of hectares of vibrant forests and fields. They will also lead to the displacement and possible destitution of at least 100,000 people and destruction of their livelihood, culture and economies.

When the project was first proposed in the 1960s, it was argued that the dams would help irrigate the chronically drought-stricken state of Gujarat in western India and would meet the country’s ever-growing energy needs, but as another Indian activist put it, “Extensive evidence (has shown) that even the irrigation that is propagated as the main reason for the dams will not take place, and that the plan is really to irrigate only a limited area that conveniently contains already wealthy farmers.” Largely due to Patkar’s efforts, donors have either delayed or halted their commitment to the multi-million dollar project. However, it is not yet certain that the danger posed to the villages is over.

Environmental activism is not just the preserve of developing-country women. In the United States of America, for example, women’s membership in grassroots environmental and human settlements organizations and other “green” movements often surpasses that of men. One of the more well-known cases is that of Lois Gibbs, a former home-maker who currently heads the anti-toxic movement in the United States. In 1978, as a result of Gibbs’ work, 900 families were evacuated from a toxic landfill in her working-class neighbourhood in the town of Love Canal. She has since formed the Citizens’ Clearing House on Hazardous Wastes that advises over 6000 citizen groups (the majority organized by women) on how to fight toxic-waste dumping in their neighbourhoods.

Women continue to be at the forefront of environmental activism.

Women have thus been at the forefront of voluntary movements aimed at preserving life on this planet. Why then, one might ask, is the national and international leadership of powerful environmental and human settlements organizations and lobbies dominated by men? Why are male-dominated governments setting the agenda and developing strategies? Why does activism continue to be a mere extension of the unpaid work women do at home, that is, cleaning up after others?

If it is true that those who face a problem are the most effective creators of solutions to the problem, then surely it makes sense to involve women not merely as implementors of the solution but as planners and decision-makers - that is, the creators of the solution?

Women’s lack of participation in mainstream, well-financed “development” organizations has already resulted in disastrous consequences. For example, many mainstream environmental and human settlements groups blame overpopulation for the human settlements crisis threatening the planet. The United States-based Sierra Club says, “The continuing rapid rate of population growth is a core problem contributing in a major way to nearly all other environmental problems.”

This is a view shared by many governments and aid agencies. The issue of increasing population and decreasing agricultural yields is a critical topic on the global environmental agenda. Rapid urban expansion has no doubt led to a host of environmental and health problems such as poor sanitation and lack of other basic social services, especially in the growing unplanned settlements in developing-country cities and towns. Increasing populations have also put enormous pressure on agricultural land and small subsistence farms. However, according to research conducted by the Urban Management Programme, a joint programme of the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) and the World Bank, the underlying causes of environmental degradation and the resulting costs to public health and productivity are not so much rapid urbanization as they are “inappropriate economic policies, inadequate investment in pollution control, deficient regulatory and institutional frameworks, weak management capacities, inadequate cost recovery and insufficient political will and public awareness.” In other words, blaming environmental destruction on overpopulation obscures the main cause of the crisis: skewed development priorities.

So it is with environmental and human settlements problems. The question is not how to prevent women from becoming victims or exploiters of the environment; the question is how women can gain control over their own environment so that they can make decisions about its management.

Change can be brought about only if women are included not only in the management of the environment but in its very definition. There is a widespread tendency among environmentalists to divorce the human from the natural. Yet saving the environment does not mean getting rid of the people who live in it. Just as saving the rain forest means preserving the lives and livelihood of the people who inhabit it, saving human settlements must necessarily include incorporating the decisions, views and participation of those who depend on the environment to create safe, secure shelter and life-support systems for their families and communities. That is why women must be involved at every stage in the process of managing and preserving the environment.

Women and men can only gain control over their environment by being involved in decisions about its management.


In traditional societies, women use resources from the natural environment to build houses. Erosion of traditional land and forest rights directly affects the ability to provide shelter for the family.