COP27 : Climate Change– A Women’s Problem?
For a major part of the history of mankind, women have been avoided in all major spheres of social life but from the late 18th century onwards, women of certain parts of the world began demanding their rights and duties.
This did not just limit to political revolutions, women also began taking up an active role in raising their voices against environment degradation.
Until today major voices for the environment and climate change, like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are mostly women.
Why this gender biasness?
One theory suggests that it is because women play a critical role in managing natural resources on family and community levels and are hence, most affected by environmental degradation. In communities around the world, women manage water, fuel, food, forests and agriculture.
Women and their connection with the environment was first talked about in a book written by Ester Boserup in the 1960s, titled, “Woman’s Role in Economic Development’‘. Then in the 1980s, policy makers began considering the connection between environment and gender issues.
Innovations regarding natural resources and environmental management were made with the specific role of women in mind. The World Bank in 1991 stated, “Women play an essential role in the management of natural resources, including soil, water, forests and energy…and often have a profound traditional and contemporary knowledge of the natural world around them”.
Unlike other aspects, women were given more attention in case of the impact they had on the natural environment and the effects the environment had on their health and well-being.
In the early 1970s, people began to critique the present basis of development and started diverting their importance on finding alternative ways to bring about development with women and the environment as central actors.
This was defined as Women, Environment, Development (WED). Schultz et al. said, “The women, environment and development debate (WED-debate) is anchored in a critical view of development policies where the link between modernization/industrialization and technology on the one hand and environmental deterioration on the other is focused”.
WED led to the synthesis of different ideologies, one of which being ecofeminism. This is a branch of feminism which states that it is the relationship between women and the earth that makes women a central character of environmentalism. Ecofeminism was coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne in her book, “Le Féminisme ou la Mort” (1974). There are different approaches within ecofeminism as well, like liberal ecofeminism, cultural ecofeminism, and social ecofeminism.
Ecofeminist theory suggests that the effects of capitalism have not benefited women and has led to a harmful split between nature and people, and ecofeminists believed that this can only be healed by the feminine instinct for nurture and a holistic knowledge of the environment.
Several ecofeminist scholars also say that it is the similar type and states of oppression faced by women and nature by the dominant males, that women feel more closely about nature. The discrimination is evident in the gendered language used to describe nature. Words like “Mother Earth” or “Mother Nature”, are some examples that link women specifically to the environment.
Nature is attributed to healing, providing and also in some cases as mute, and women too are traditionally and socially attributed as a nurturer and caregiver. Ecofeminists highlight the coherence of socially-labeled values associated with ‘femininity’ such as nurturing, empathetic, altruistic, etc. which are common among women and in nature.
An alternative thought also exists. Ecofeminist and activist Vandana Shiva wrote that women have a special connection to the environment because of their daily interactions with it in terms of food, water, fuel, medicines, etc. She believes that this connection has been underestimated. According to her, women in subsistence economies who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes”.
She says that “these alternative modes of knowing, which are oriented to the social benefits and sustenance needs are not recognized by the capitalist reductionist paradigm, because it fails to perceive the interconnectedness of nature, or the connection of women’s lives, work and knowledge with the creation of wealth”. This is because of the faulty definition of development followed and anticipated by the Western patriarchal society, which has labeled women, nature, and other marginalized groups as “unproductive”.
Another reason why women and the environment are uttered in the same breath is because among the most affected by climate change are women. They gather water and fish from water bodies affected by droughts, farm in lands affected by floods, collect from forests thinning down due to deforestation, and the like. During pregnancy and motherhood, their health is the most at risk.
This is severe because more factors of climate change like polluted water and impure air have proven to cause infertility, birth defects, immature births, infant mortality and miscarriages. If not acted against, this can endanger human civilization even further. Apart from this, women also have less access to land and productive resources.
Often unrecognised, women play a major role in ensuring that fragile ecosystems are protected, families are able to survive natural disasters, and natural resources are managed in a fair, efficient and sustainable way. Although women have proven their skills in managing natural resources and adapting to climate change, their contributions are often taken for granted or not valued.
India’s Chipko movement, Kenya’s Green Belt Movement all depicts women’s contributions to sustainable development. Now, we have Medha Patekar, a social worker, Menaka Gandhi, an environmentalist and politician, who are also playing key roles for the conservation and promotion of the environment.
What is the Eco Gender Gap?
Because of the ongoing efforts by many activists, environmentalists and independent journalists, sustainability and climate change have managed to attract the attention of the commons; especially after the pandemic. This is assured that businesses would invest in more and more climate friendly products and ways of production so that not only do they rope in investors but also keep themselves away from any future scrutiny that would put them in the bad light.
At the moment major world leaders, like the US, Europe, New Zealand, etc. are favoring environment-friendly businesses. From electric vehicles to reusable cutlery, green products are overwhelmingly marketed today. However, most of these green items like reusable soaps, menstrual cups, recycled paper, jute bags, etc. appeal to and are bought by women. Is this discouraging the men from taking responsibility?
A woman might see a variety of sustainable products lined up in online and offline stores but if you are a man, you may not have even noticed it because a majority of most eco-friendly products are marketed to women.
This is again because of the sad reason that women are still considered more responsible for the domestic sphere and hence, most of the eco-friendly products are household oe women products like decorations, shopping bags, cosmetics, toiletries, etc.
The market research firm Mintel has termed this as an “eco gender gap”, where green branding might as well be pink. In its 2018 report, Jack Duckett, a senior consumer lifestyles analyst, said women “still tend to take charge of the running of the household”. But this inclined and targeted advertising of eco-friendly campaigns and products towards female audiences has made it seem like sustainability is women’s work.
This is just a reflection of the persistent portrayal of women as caregivers, now even of the planet. Janet K Swim, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University remembers how a political cartoon showing Theodore Roosevelt, the US president from 1901 to 1909, wearing an apron was used to mock him as feminine because of his environment conservation policies.
“Research suggests that women have higher levels of socialisation to care about others and be socially responsible, which then leads them to care about environmental problems and be willing to adopt environmental behaviours,” says Rachel Howell, a lecturer in sustainable development at the University of Edinburgh.
The fact that femininity and “greenness” have become closely linked is partly what puts off men from doing their bit. In a study published in the journal, Sex Roles, Swim and her fellow researchers at Penn State found that men would not carry a reusable shopping bag, recycle, or carry out any environmentally friendly activity for fear of being perceived as gay or feminine.
Many men are also reluctant to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets, because of the same. A 2016 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research found that “men may be motivated to avoid or even oppose green behaviours in order to safeguard their gender identity” and that their participation could be increased by dissociating femininity and sustainability, such as “by using masculine rather than conventional green branding”.
Ideas that suggest ways of meaningful action on climate crisis are also gender biased. Another study by Swim, published in the journal Global Environmental Change showed that men preferred arguments that were based on science and business and tended to “attribute negative feminine traits” to men who argued on the basis of ethics and environmental justice.
On the other hand, women have less faith in science, technology and government; because these institutions never treated women well in the past. Men, however, have been historically well served by these institutions so they are much more inclined to believe that, if there is a problem, then somebody or some technology will solve it and they do not need to change their lifestyle.
A 2014 paper published in the International Journal for Masculinity Studies found that most of the climate change deniers were men because for them it was not the environment that was threatened; it was a modern industrial society built and dominated by men that was challenged.
Martin Gelin wrote in the New Republic that, “the highest-profile climate campaigners in the world today are two young women, Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Those shouting them down are primarily older conservative men”.
“Occasionally, I feel quite angry,” says Howell, “because a lot of the problems have historically been created more by men, because they have more power, but it sometimes seems that women are getting more desperate about trying to solve them, and maybe have less power to do it.”
A Positive Change
Millennials and Generation Z are different because they largely agree on the climate crisis, both men and women. In the youth climate movement, Greta is accompanied by a lot of young men as well as women. So, this gender disparity may mostly be generational.
So now, brands are changing as well. More than 68 percent of Europeans have rated that being environmentally friendly is more important to them than it was five years ago, according to a European Consumer Packaging Perceptions survey from 2018, and for 19- to 29-year-olds, it was 80%.
Sportswear companies like Adidas have a wide range of gym trainers made from upcycled ocean plastic, that are gender-neutral. The world is slowly becoming more inclusive but there is a long way to go. More and more people, irrespective of any gender, must join the army of climate warriors and make a healthy environment the topmost priority and make wise choices.
[Images from different sources]
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