Women and the environment through history

Women and the environment through history

Environmental history books have mostly focused on men’s roles, and generally women’s involvement with nature has been ignored. Even historical texts have been deficient in writing about women participation in environmentalist actions. So, the result is that women’s role in environmental struggles and debates about nature has been hidden from history. However, in reviewing recent centuries’ environmental crises, we can see women of every social class, nation, or color had raised their concerns about the environment more noticeably and openly. According to Bella Abzug, one of the founders and regional co-chairs of U.S. based Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), women by their increasingly nature-focused activities want to prove to the world that they can make a difference, and be a powerful force for positive changes in the environment and the world around them. Abzug, Bella. (1995). Women and the Environment. International Authors Series. New York: The Department of Public Information. ]

Women’s attitude and the environment

The deep connection between women and nature comes from the daily interaction between them. However, in the recent decades, environmental movements have increased as the movements for the women’s rights have also increased. Mellor, Mary.(1997). Feminism & Ecology. New York: New York University Press. ] Today’s union of nature preservation with women’s rights and liberation has stemmed from invasion of their rights in the past. [Merchant, Carolyn. (1996). Earthcare: Women and environment. New York: Routledge.] In developing areas of the world, women are considered the primary users of natural resources (Land, forest, and water), because they are the ones who are responsible for gathering food, fuel, and fodder. Although in these countries, women mostly can’t have the land and farms ownership outright, they are the ones who spend most of their time working on the farms to feed the household. Shouldering this responsibility leads them to learn more about soil, plants, and trees and not misuse them. Although, technological inputs increase male involvement with land, many of them leave the farm to go to cities to find jobs; so women will be responsible for an increasing portion of farm tasks. [Jiggins, Janice. (1994). Changing the Boundaries: Women-Centered Perspectives on population and the Environment. New York: Island Press. ] This bring rural women to a close relationship with land and other natural resources, which promote a new culture of respectful use and preservations of environment, therefore that next generations can meet their needs. From Silent Spring to vocal vanguard.(1997, January). United Nations Chronicle, 34(3), 35-38. Retrieved December 13, 2006, from ProQuest database. ] Besides considering how to achieve appropriate agricultural production and human nutrition, women want to secure access to the land. [Jiggins, Janice. (1994). Changing the Boundaries: Women-Centered Perspectives on population and the Environment. New York: Island Press. ] Women’s perspectives and values for the environment are somewhat different than men’s. Women give greater priority to protection of and improving the capacity of nature, maintaining farming lands, and caring for nature and environment’s future. [Jiggins, Janice. (1994). Changing the Boundaries: Women-Centered Perspectives on population and the Environment. New York: Island Press. ] Repeated studies have shown that women have a stake in environment, and this stake is reflected in the degree to which they care about natural resources.

Environmental change and women

Today, women struggle against alarming global trends, but they are working together to effect change. By establishing domestic and international non-governmental organizations, many women have recognized themselves and acknowledge to the world that they not only have the right to participate in environmental dilemmas but they have different relationship with environment including different needs, responsibilities, and knowledge about natural resources. [Jiggins, Janice. (1994). Changing the Boundaries: Women-Centered Perspectives on population and the Environment. New York: Island Press. ] This is why women are affected differently than men by environmental degradation, deforestation, pollution and overpopulation. Women are often the most directly affected by environmental issues, so they become more concerned about environmental problems. Studies have shown the direct effects of chemicals and pesticides on human health. According to [http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/index.html United Nations Chronicle] journal researchers have found an association between breast cancer and the pesticide DDT and its derivative DDE; and also one study by the World Health Organization has found that women who are exposed to pesticides face a higher risk of abortion. These kinds of health problems cause women to feel more responsible regarding environmental issues.

Gender and perception of the environment

Given the environmental degradation caused while men have had dominance over women, and women’s large investment in environmental sustainability, some have theorized that women would protect the Earth better than men if in power. Although there is no evidence for this hypothesis, recent movements have shown that women are more sensitive to the earth and its problems. They have created a special value system about environmental issues. People's approaches to environmental issues may depend on their relationship with nature. Both women and nature have been considered as subordinates entities by men throughout history, which conveys a close affiliation between them. [Wenz, Peter S. (2001). Environmental Ethics Today. New York: Oxford University Press.]

Throughout history men have looked at natural resources as commercial entities or income generating tools, while women have tended to see the environment as a resource supporting their basic needs. As an example, rural Indian women collect the dead branches which are cut by storm for fuel wood to use rather than cutting the live trees. [Rodda, Annabel. (1991). Women and the Environment. New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd.] Since African, Asian, and Latin American women use the land to produce food for their family, they acquire the knowledge of the land/soil conditions, water, and other environmental features. Any changes in the environment on these areas, like deforestation, have the most effect on women of that area, and cause them to suffer until they can cope with these changes. One of the good examples would be the Nepali women whose grandmothers had to climb to the mountain to be able to bring in wood and fodder.

While cutting a forest for the income generated is something men would do, women are more likely to keep and protect a forest. For example, in India in 1906, there was a conflict between men and women in the hilly region called Chipko. As forest clearing was expanding, the women protested by physically hugging themselves to the trees to prevent their being cut down, giving rise to what is now called the Chipko movement, an environmentalist movement initiated by these Indian women (which also is where the term tree-huggers originated). [Breton, Mary J. (1998). Women pioneers for the environment. Boston: Northeastern University Press.] This conflict started because men wanted to cut the trees to use them for industrial purposes while women wanted to keep them since it was their food resource and deforestation was a survival matter for local people. [Breton, Mary J. (1998). Women pioneers for the environment. Boston: Northeastern University Press.]

Gender-based commitments and movements such as feminism have reached to a new approach through the combination of feminism and environmentalism called Ecofeminism. Ecofeminists believe on the interconnection between the domination of women and nature. According to ecofeminism the superior power treats all subordinates the same. So, ecofeminism takes into account women subordination and nature degradation. Remarking all these different reactions, one can see that however, most policy decision makers are men, but women have responded more sensitively and actively to environmental dilemmas and debates.

Women environmentalists

Rachel Carson

One of the outstanding women environmentalists is Rachel Carson. Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was a scientist, writer, and ecologist. Rachel Carson went to the Pennsylvania College for Women, majoring in English, but she was inspired by her biology teacher so she switched her major to biology. She became more interested and focused on the sea while she was working at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Massachusetts. Her eloquent prose let to the publication of her first book, "Under the Sea-Wind: a Naturalists’ Picture of Ocean Life" , in 1941. In 1949 she became chief editor of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Her second book, "The Sea Around Us", won the National Book Award and sold more than 200,000 copies. After that she retired from FWS and became a full time writer. After her third and final book about the sea, "The Edge of the Sea", Carson focused on effects of chemicals and pesticides on the environment. That is when she wrote her book about environment, "Silent Spring". The book was about what man has done to the nature and eventually to himself, and started a modern environmental movement. Carson believed that human and nature are mutually dependent on each other. She argued that industrial activities such as pesticides use can damages the earth ecosystem and will have far-reaching ecological consequences such as future human health problems. Today, scientific studies have demonstrated these consequences. [Breton, Mary J. (1998). Women pioneers for the environment. Boston: Northeastern University Press.]

Maria Cherkasova

Maria Cherkasova (1938 - ) is a journalist, ecologist, and director of Centre for Independent Ecological Programmers (CIEP). She is famous because of coordinating a 4-year campaign to stop construction of hydro-electric dam on the Katun River. After Cherkasova's involvement in the student movement on environmental protection in 1960’s, she began to work for the Red Data Book for the Department of Environmental Protection Institute. She researched and preserved rare species until she became the editor of USSR Red Data Book. She co-founded the Socio-Ecological Union, which has become the largest ecological NGO in the former Soviet Union. In 1990, she became director of CIEP, which arrange and drives activities in an extensive range of ecologically related areas on both domestic and international fronts. Cherkasova recently has shifted her focus on children rights protection to live in a healthy environment and speaks for both inside and outside Russia. [Breton, Mary J. (1998). Women pioneers for the environment. Boston: Northeastern University Press.]

Ecological movements initiated by women

People in Western countries think they originated the environmental movements without knowing that the villagers in mostly poor and developing countries gave birth to these kinds of movements.

Chipko movement

One of the first environmentalist movement which was inspired by women was the Chipko movement (Women tree-huggers in India). It began when Maharajah of Jodhpur wanted to build a new palace in Rajasthan which is India’s Himalayan foot hills. While the axemen were cutting the trees, martyr Amrita Devi hugged one of the trees. This is because in Jodhpur each child had a tree that could talk to it. The axmen ignored Devi and after taking her off the tree cut it down. Her daughters who followed her and the mother were all were killed. People from forty-nine villages around Jodhpur responded to this act and hugged the trees the axemen were trying to cut. This act by Himalayan village women was a nonviolent resistance movement to save the forest. Chipko movement doesn’t have any formal structure, board of director or any specific leaders. Women who participated in this movement were largely rural women, who are connected to each other horizontally rather than vertically via a hierarchy. Chipko activists haven’t focused on one area and they shift their hub into any region which faces the risk of deforestation. Chipko’s idea and philosophy spread through word of mouth mostly by women who talked about them on village paths or markets. [ Breton, Mary J. (1998). Women pioneers for the environment. Boston: Northeastern University Press. ] The Chipko movement started in Uttaranchal. It was started by a woman called Gaura Devi. She was supported by environmentalists like Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna

Green Belt movement

Another movement, which is one of biggest in women and environmental history, is the [http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/ Green Belt movement] . Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai founded this movement on the World Environment Day in June 1977. The starting ceremony was very simple: a few women planted seven trees in Maathai’s backyard. By 2005, 30 million trees had been planted by participants in the Green Belt movement on public and private lands. The Green Belt movement aims to bring environmental restoration along with society’s economic growth. This movement leaded by Maathai focused on restoration of Kenya’s rapidly diminishing forests as well as empowering the rural women through environmental preservation, with a special emphasis on planting indigenous trees. [ Green Belt Movement. (2006). Retrieved November15, 2006 from http://www.wangarimaathai.or.ke/]


External links

* [http://www.unep.org/women_env/ Women and the Environment]
* [http://www.unep.org/gender_env/ Gender and the Environment]
* [http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/index.html United Nations Chronicle]
* [http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/ Green Belt Movement]

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