|Rural Women and the Environment: Shared Concerns? (IRMA, 1994)|
Since the 1970s there has been a growing interest in the relationship between women and the environment, a relationship where women's work, like the environment, has largely been undervalued. This concern has been shaped by two inter-related discourses, namely the environmental agenda which emerged after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972), and the various approaches to integrating "women in development", broadly labelled as WID. Consequently, low-income rural women in developing countries were not only identified as the poorest of the poor, but in addition, they were seen as the primary victims of the deepening ecological crisis.
This paper begins by outlining the construction of the women, environment and development agenda, commonly known as WED, before tracing some of the ideas which have informed this agenda. The debate on WED does not have any grand theoretical underpinnings; rather it has been supported by a diverse canvas of ideas and practices, loosely called ecofeminism, which has essentially emerged over the past 20 years through western women's involvement in the peace, green and women's movements. However, the equation of women with nature, central to one line of ecofeminist thinking, is problematic and critics have rightly pointed out that the mere participation of women in environmental management projects does not guarantee them access to and control of productive (natural) resources.
Implicit in this realization is a steady shift in thinking from "woman" as a self-contained identity, to a more realistic perspective based on the gendered relations between men and women. Gender describes the social relationship between men and women and the way in which this relationship has been socially constructed and institutionalized, through the different roles that men and women play in society, roles which are shaped by economic, cultural and historical determinants as well as biological differences.
Thus, the relationship between women, men and the environment is structured by gender (and class/caste) differentiated roles, rights and responsibilities with respect to the use, management and ownership of natural resources. Such differences in turn, structure the effects of environmental change on people and their responses to it, as well as, shape and define their systems of experimental knowledge.