|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.
Ortner, an anthropologist, was one of the first to raise the question about the relationship between women and nature in the title of her 1974 paper, "Is the female to male as nature is to culture?" In an alleged critique of the dominant ideologies of biologically determined sex roles, Ortner argued that women "seem to be" closer to nature, because of their biology, that is, their reproductive functions. However, she maintained that "... it is not biology per se, but the social construction of it, that places women closer to nature," (in Sayers 1982: 108). Thus, women are "perceived" to be inferior because of their anatomy and inherent social roles (eg., childcare), which are largely undervalued by society with its overriding emphasis on culture, on thought and technology.3
"Historical characterisations of the women-nature connection have been based on views of a common domination of both," (Jackson 1993a: 395). However, there are conflicting opinions, at least amongst Western historians and philosophers, about the nature and origins of such domination. Some trace it to the spread of Judaeo-Christianity and the destruction of pagan animism, while others maintain that the "..biblical account of Genesis commits humanity to a stewardship, rather than dominion over nature [role]," (Jackson 1993a: 390).
According to Ruether (1982), classical western (European) thought is based on the notion of a "transcendent dualism" which developed from the Greek tradition. Masculine consciousness and rationality were seen to transcend the visible inferiority of nature and the bodily, in other words female immanence. Transcendence is the work of culture and therefore of men, it is the process of overcoming immanence through the domination of both nature and women (King 1989: 21).
Merchant (1980) describes two contrasting images of women and nature in pre-sixteenth century Europe. The first and more dominant image was organic, based upon a culturally sanctioned respect for the earth which was seen as a "nurturing mother." The second and opposing image saw nature as wild, as disorder which needed to be controlled. This was reflected in the conceptualization of women as witches who "raised storms, caused illness, destroyed crops...and killed infants," (Merchant 1980: 127 in Jackson 1993a: 390) and were therefore unjustly tried and usually burnt alive. The advent of the Scientific (Industrial) Revolution in the seventeenth century further sanctioned the domination of both nature and women, through its emphasis on scientific methodology and a reductionist rationality.
Vandana Shiva (1989) identifies colonialism as the starting point for the exploitation and control of women and nature in the Indian context. She argues that the model of development imposed by imperialism marked a radical shift from the traditional Indian cosmological view of nature as "Prakriti," a living and creative process based upon the feminine principle of "Shakti" (female energy). Together with "Purusha" the masculine principle, it created the world. Thus, for women "...the death of Prakriti is simultaneously a beginning of their marginalisation, devaluation, displacement and ultimate dispensability. The ecological crisis is, at its root, the death of the feminine principle," (Shiva 1989: 42).Many of these perspectives find a voice in ecofeminism, a broad canvas of ideas and practices which have evolved over the past 20 years through western women's involvement in the peace, ecology and feminist movements. Essentially ecofeminism is a critique of dualism, that is "...the process by which contrasting concepts (nature/culture; feminine/masculine) are formed by domination and subordination, and constructed as oppositional and exclusive," (Plumwood 1992: 12). However, the development of non-hierarchical alternatives by ecofeminists is problematic, partly because of the conflicting opinions, amongst both ecofeminists and their critics, as to what constitutes "ecofeminism" or for that matter, who is an "ecofeminist."
Radical cultural ecofeminists for example, emphasize the search for a new, spiritual relationship with nature based on personal transformation (Daly 1978, Collard and Contrucci 1988). Life is seen as an interconnected web, rather than hierarchal in structure. But the superiority of the feminine spirit is usually acknowledged and taken to be biologically determined, "...so that only a society in which women can limit or control the number of men will be free of aggressiveness and the destruction of nature," (Plumwood 1992: 10).
Such an essentialist approach offers no account of historical change. By positing "woman" as a unitary category, it ignores differences between women as well as forms of domination other than gender. Moreover, it assumes that women, "... placed in positions of patriarchal power will act ...differently from men," (King 1989: 23), an assumption which overlooks existing economic and political structures.
Social ecofeminists, on the other hand, view nature as a social and political construct, rather than a natural category. They do not reduce all forms of oppression to women's oppression, but instead look at the social, historical and political reasons behind the exploitation of both women and natural resources, at the structures of (male) power. Although social ecofeminists seek to break away from the nature-culture duality, which they regard as a shortcoming of the cultural ecofeminist position, their definition of an alternative society embraces a utopian vision of diversity, harmony, and decentralised communities based on appropriate technology, holistic knowledge and participatory decision-making (King 1989, D'Souza 1989). The feminization of social ecology (Bookchin 1982) is an attempt by women to both position themselves with nature as well as, to be an active and reflective part of (male) culture so that they can use it as a vantage point for developing an alternative and non-destructional society.
However, the celebration of solidarity between women and nature, begs a number of questions. What is the basis of this so-called "connection"? And who defines it? Men, women or social scientists?
According to Shiva, this relationship is based on shared similarities, that is both women and nature create and sustain life and both (in India) have suffered the impact of colonisation and post-colonial development. Such a position fails to recognize pre-colonial economic and social (including gender) inequalities, nor does it differentiate amongst women of different classes, castes, races and ecological zones (Agarwal 1992: 125). Moreover, in her analysis of the feminine principle, Shiva lays emphasis on Hindu religious discourse. In so doing, she overlooks not only the plurality of Hinduism and the current tendencies towards violence amongst some fundamental Hindus, but equally, the diversity of India's other cultural beliefs.4
Any strategy for change needs to be based on an analysis of the structural causes of environmental degradation which, in turn, recognizes the multiple levels of interactions within pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial society. Agarwal (1992) suggests that women's and men's relationship with nature needs to be understood in the context of their given material reality, a perspective she terms, feminist environmentalism:
"Hence, insofar as there is a gender and class (/caste/race) based division of labour and distribution of property and power, gender and class (/caste/race) structure people's interactions with nature and so structure the effect of environmental change on people and their responses to it," (Agarwal 1992: 126).
Feminist environmentalism involves challenging both the ideological construction of gender and notions about people's relationship with nature, as well as transforming the actual division of work and the appropriation of resources between the genders (Ibid: 127). In order to understand the implications for praxis, we need to look at the concept of gender (and class) within the framework of environmental change and its impact on poor rural men and women.
"Gender refers to the socially constructed and institutionalised forms of identity which are attached to biological sex differences, and gendering is the process producing these forms, through the granting or withholding of significant social, political and economic resources," (Goetz 1992: 6).
The concept of gender is being increasingly used to denote a refusal to focus on women or men alone, but on the social relationships between the two and how these relationships are negotiated. Sex, or the biologically determined physical differences between male and female, are universal. In contrast, gendered roles and identities vary between and within societies depending on the positioning of women as well as the processes of socialisation.
Although gender is a neutral term, there is a recurring tendency for gender analysis to focus on women per se. To some extent this can be justified, not only because there is a clear need to redress the imbalance in research and information available about the two genders, but also because of the way in which society is commonly characterised as male. Masculine pronouns are used to denote the identity of farmers and peasants, thus conceptualising differential activities, perceptions and ownership of resources as essentially uniform in terms of gender. Female work, in contrast, is largely undervalued by being relegated to the arena of unproductive labour, where it is considered "invisible," simply because it is not subject to quantification by conventional methods of data collection and analysis (Agarwal 1985).
Gender relations, that is the relations between people as bearers of gender identity, exist at many levels - within and between households, in communities and in organisations. In addition, the social processes by which society reproduces itself (for example, education) also assign different roles, responsibilities and expectations to men and women. The next section looks at a few critical areas in the maintenance of sustainable rural livelihoods, where the impact of environmental change on gender relations has important implications for development policy and practice. Not only do rural households differ in their access to land and resources, they are also not, "...harmonious, egalitarian, social units, but hierarchical structures embodying relations of subordination and domination based on gender and age," (Sen 1982: 29).
The sexual division of labour is the basis for understanding inequalities in the distribution and control of resources within a household. Familial rights and obligations imply an "...interdependence between family members in both the productive and reproductive spheres, creating the need for an exchange of goods and services. But there is no a priori reason to assume this exchange takes the form of sharing and is intrinsically harmonious," (Whitehead and Bloom 1992: 47) as conventional neo- classical economists suggest. Rather, the household is a domain of "cooperative conflict" (Sen 1990) where decision-making is the result of bargaining between individuals with different degrees of power.
The nature of interdependencies within the labour process is a crucial aspect in determining the extent to which environmental degradation affects men and women. Whitehead (1985) distinguishes between two types of labour processes in agricultural production, sex-sequential and sex-segregated. "The former requires labour inputs from each sex at different times to produce a single product [for example, the inter-related tasks in cattle rearing - male, and dairying - female] while the latter refers to processes in which one or other sex performs all (or most) of the operations necessary to produce a given product [for example, beer brewing is mainly women's work in most rural African societies, from fuelwood collection and germination of grain to sale]," (Kabeer 1991: 17 and Jackson 1993b for the examples).
Such an approach is analytically more useful than the classic distinction: women = subsistence food production and men = cash crops, because it focuses on the interplay between different roles and responsibilities (Leach 1992: 15). Differences in labour inputs, in turn, determine the degree to which women and men's daily time allocation is affected by environmental degradation, as well as, the nature of their incentive towards conservation. Where women have greater control over the returns to their labour, they may have greater scope towards individual or collective environmental protection.
Time allocation studies show that in developing countries rural women work on an average of 12 to 18 hours per day, compared to 8 to 12 hours for men (Jacobson 1992: 15). Since a large part of their daily tasks revolves around the collection of household biomass, women are usually more affected by the growing commercialization and degradation of community based resources. Studies on the additional length of time and greater distances women have to walk to collect fuelwood, fodder and water show that the burden of ecological change has fallen disproportionately on women and young children, particularly girls (Benett 1991).
Men and women vary in their acquisition and disposal of income which influences what has been termed their "environmental behaviour." However, the assumption that women are only interested in fuelwood trees as they meet their daily survival needs while men prefer commercial species which they can sell for timber is often misleading. Not only is it based on a very narrow definition of women's interests as arising from their domestic roles, it overlooks their asset-creating needs and simply reinforces gender inequalities (Leach 1992: 15). Farm forestry by tribal women on private lands in Panchmahals district, eastern Gujarat, shows a greater demand for quick growing species like eucalyptus, and fruit trees like mango, which provide security in times of drought (Grant 1989).
"Property rights are social relations - that is, they represent relationships between people and people, rather than people and things," (Jackson 1993b: 15). Access to land, the basic means of agrarian production, varies tremendously both between men and women and across different socio-economic and cultural contexts. Primary rights to land for example, through traditional patrilineal inheritance systems, usually excludes daughters or gives them a lesser share than sons, as they tend to leave their natal village on marriage (Agarwal 1988). Although there have been some changes in legislation since Independence, the nature of women's rights over land varies according to the personal laws governing different religious communities. Access does not guarantee control over management and production decisions as there are strong institutional and cultural barriers which prevent women from exercising their direct claim and control over their land, or being able to self-manage it (Agarwal 1989).
Traditional customary or usufruct rights to land, for example village commons for grazing, have been affected by their increasing acquisition either by the state, private companies, including multinationals, or individual (male) producers (Jodha 1986). In such cases, it is women from tribal, landless or marginal peasant households who suffer the most since they depend on minor forest products as a significant source of income (Menon 1991).
Livestock inheritance also reveals gender differentials with men having predominant ownership rights over large stock such as cattle, while women usually own smaller stock, though they can inherit cattle from their parents. Decision-making over the disposal of animals is the prerogative of the male although women do most of the animal caring. Control of income in dairying is similarly dominated by men, despite efforts to increase women's participation, particularly at the management level, in dairy co-operatives.5
Inequities in the intra-family distribution of food and health care are further accentuated by environmental degradation, particularly of village commons and forests. Women and children, especially girls, are the first to be affected by efforts to economize on both the quantity and quality of food available, despite the fact that they are expending more energy in providing household subsistence.
"Women are also more directly exposed than men, to waterborne diseases and to the pollution of rivers and ponds with fertilizers and pesticide runoffs... " (Agarwal 1992: 141). In addition, the agricultural tasks performed by women, for example rice transplanting or cotton-picking, leaves them vulnerable to bodily ailments or exposes them to dangerous pesticides.
Women and men have different experimental knowledge depending on the way in which they relate with their local environment, their perception of processes of environmental degradation and the mechanisms by which they cope with socio-ecological change such as drought and famine. The devaluation and marginalisation of indigenous knowledge and skills is seen to disproportionately affect women as they have generally been excluded from "...the institutions through which modern scientific knowledge is created and transmitted," (Agarwal 1992: 143).
Displacement of people as a result of large-scale hydroelectric or infrastructure development projects also has a significant, but little researched gendered impact in terms of the loss of informal social support networks which women typically depend on, more so than men, since they have invested considerable time in building them. Such social relationships include "labour-sharing arrangements during peak agricultural seasons, loans taken in cash or kind during severe crises such as droughts, and the borrowing of small amounts of foodstuffs, fuel, fodder, and so on, even in normal times," (Agarwal 1992: 142). Networks tend to spread over a range of village clusters and take time to re-establish once dislocated.
In sum then, the gendered impacts of environmental change suggest that project design methods will have to focus on a number of interconnected sub-systems: social, cultural, economic, legal, institutional and technological, which impinge upon gender relations in rural societies. Development interventions need to address rural women's short term practical gender interests (access to clean water, fuelwood and fodder) as well as, long term strategic gender interests, for example rights, and the ability to exercise rights, over land. Priorities will vary with locally defined needs (Alsop 1993), but a crucial ingredient is decision-making by women themselves in the process of participation and self-empowerment. This will require the support of male kin and community members who need to see women as active agents of social change rather than passive recipients of development. For, in the final analysis, the "environment" is not the natural concern of rural women per se, but a social construct whose management is dependent on the social organisation of society.