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close this bookWho Participates? The Case of Rural Women, an NGO and Joint Forest Management in Gujarat (IRMA, 1995)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAbstract
View the documentAcknowledgement
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentWomen and the environment: is there a special relationship?
View the documentForestry, the state and NGOs: organisational approaches to women's participation
View the documentAKRSP: gender, the organisation and joint forest management
View the documentJambar: the village, subsistence agriculture and forestry
View the documentAKRSP: forestry, village institutions and people's participation
View the documentMahila vikas mandals and the question of women's participation
View the documentConclusion: re-identifying women's role in forest management
View the documentReferences

Women and the environment: is there a special relationship?

Much has been written about the relationship between women, nature and development, a relationship where women's work, like nature, is undervalued, "... but as with nature, the economic system cannot exist without it," (The Ecologist 1992: 138). However, there is no unifying perception of this relationship, but rather there are different ideological approaches to the assumed "connection" between women and nature. These perspectives, are, in turn, reflected in different policy concerns and development interventions, ranging from those that address women's practical needs (woodsaving, smokeless stoves or biogas plants which reduce the drudgery of fuelwood collection and cooking time) to strategic interests which question women's subordinate position vis-a-vis men ( access to and control of productive resources such as land and credit).

The most dominant discourse to influence the growing body of literature on Women, Environment and Development (WED), is that of ecofeminism, a broad canvas of ideas and practices, evolving largely from Western women's participation in the women's, ecology and peace movements. The diversity of ecofeminism notwithstanding, there are basically two main epistemological positions, namely cultural and social ecofeminism, with the former being the most prevalent and influential (Plumwood 1992).

Advocates of cultural ecofeminism argue that both women and nature have been systematically desecrated by processes of modernisation, including colonialism, and patriarchal structures. They emphasize the search for a new, spiritual relationship between society (culture) and nature, where life is seen as an interconnected web rather than hierarchical in structure (King 1989; Shiva 1989). According to this view, women are portrayed as "natural" environmental carers, both because of their role in nurturing life, and their experiential knowledge gained from working closely with their environment as providers of household biomass and subsistence needs.

Consequently, women came to be seen as the solution to the development-environment crisis, as major "assets" to be harnessed in initiatives to conserve resources, and as "fixers" of ecological problems (Dankelman and Davidson 1989; Rodda 1991; Sontheimer 1991). But in ascribing to women the additional responsibility of being caretakers of the earth, without in turn, addressing their access to and control over critical natural resources, as well as control over knowledge, information and decision making systems and the products of their own labour, means that the positioning of women as naturally privileged environmental managers is problematic.

By positing "women" as a unitary category, essentially closer to nature than men, there is a tendency to not only overlook socio-economic and cultural differences between women, but equally important, to ignore the relationship between men and women within a given material and historical context. Thus,

"Women as a group do not experience environmental degradation in a uniform manner - these effects are mediated by the livelihood system....Women relate to natural resources as part of their livelihood strategies, which reflect multiple objectives, powerful wider political forces and, crucially, gender relations, i.e. social relations which systematically differentiate men and women in processes of production and reproduction," (Jackson 1993: 1949).

Agarwal (1992) identifies this alternative approach as feminist environmentalism. It is based on the premise, that the relationship between women, men and the environment, is structured not only by gender/age, but also by class (caste, race) differences. Such differences in turn, structure the effects of environmental change on people and their responses to it, as well as shape and define their differential systems of knowledge. At another level, Agarwal maintains, but does not adequately develop, that a feminist environmentalism must look at how dominant groups in society construct and control ways of thinking about men, women and the environment. That is, how are meanings ascribed to people's struggles, how and when do they become issues on the political agenda, and how does their significance or otherwise change over time.

In the context of deforestation and its differential impact on women, studies show that older women may pass on the burden of fuelwood collection to younger women in the same household, landless women may be forced to encroach on forest lands and, as this paper argues later, women adapt to fuelwood shortages by switching to other sources of cooking fuel (see Jackson 1993). A priori assumptions about women's inclination to participate in forest protection and management have to be deconstructed within the gendered political economy in which women articulate their livelihood strategies. The next section briefly outlines how the state and NGOs in India have approached the question of women's participation in forestry, and why such participation is increasingly being seen as a social necessity in the light of the recent JFM resolution.