|Rural Women and the Environment: Shared Concerns? (IRMA, 1994)|
Since the early 1970s there has been considerable interest in the relationship between women, particularly low-income rural women in developing countries, and the environment, that is, the natural resource base on which development depends. This concern was shaped by three parallel, but interconnected discourses which questioned the process of modernisation, namely a structural critique on the political economy of development, an ecological critique on the limits to growth and a feminist critique on the marginalisation of women in existing patterns of development.1 Consequently, poor rural women were not only identified as the poorest of the poor, but in addition, they were seen as the primary victims of the deepening environmental crisis since they were the main users and providers of household biomass and subsistence needs.
Gradually, the debate shifted from viewing women as mere victims, to recognising that they have a particular role to play in natural resource management, because of their knowledge and privileged experience gained from working closely with their environment. Media pictures of rural women carrying heavy loads of fuelwood and fodder across barren landscapes, or balancing pots of water over considerable distances lent credence to this perspective. 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 (Leach 1992).
The feminization of poverty determined the rationale for
development interventions which built upon women's assumed special
relationship with the environment. For example, the provision of basic needs for
the rural poor, such as clean water, sanitation, shelter and access to fuelwood
and fodder, were seen to meet both development and environmental concerns, as
well as the specific needs of rural women who were responsible for the provision
of household items of collective consumption and family welfare. Thus,
women's household tasks were extended to the community arena where they
were given the additional responsibility of community environmental management
in programs ranging from social forestry to maintaining community water supply
and sanitation systems. Not only was this largely unpaid or poorly paid work,
but it also rested on the assumption that women have free time and a positive,
indeed voluntary, inclination towards protecting their deteriorating natural
Ascribing to women the additional responsibility of being caretakers of the earth, without in turn addressing their access to and control of natural resources, to knowledge, information and decision-making systems and to the products of their own labour, means that the positioning of women as "naturally privileged environmental managers" is problematic (ISS 1991). 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 importantly, to ignore the relationship between men and women within a given material context (Agarwal 1992).
Gender defines the social relationship between men and women, and the way in which this relationship has been socially constructed and institutionalised given the different roles that men and women play in society, roles which are shaped by economic, historical and cultural determinants. Thus, the relationship between women, men and the environment is structured by gender (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.
This paper outlines the ideological underpinnings of the women-environment debate which ranges from arguments rooted in female biology to those based upon nature as a social construct. It then looks at a number of critical aspects in the analysis of gendered environmental change at the level of the rural household and its implications for development policy and practice.