Gender and Environment – December 29, 2011


Maria van Driel* argues that the struggle for equity within society and for environmental and social justice is interlinked.

In the preparation for the Khanya Journal’s third Conference on Political Economy in 2011: Environment, COP17 and Social Justice, it was extremely difficult to find an activist to speak on the issue of gender and environment. A few women explained that they were too busy with preparations for COP17 to assist. But, after some consideration, it seems that the problem itself reflects women’s broader struggle for equity. For instance, too few women activists and leaders, especially black women (and men), within the environmental movement and the social movements as a whole, have the confidence and the training to present papers at conferences. Secondly, the environmental movement is weak, fragmented, mostly NGOs, and tends to be dominated by (white) men. Knowledge of environmental issues is often inaccessible, located among a few, and has not been purposefully transferred to broader layers of activists. Thirdly, some argued that focusing on gender and/or women would divide an already weak environmental movement. Lastly, the struggle for women’s equity and environmental justice have not been integrated into the broader social justice movement.

Women and Equity

The age-old struggle for women’s equity and against all forms of male dominance or patriarchy in the home, the community and society, continues internationally.

In South Africa, despite wide-ranging rights enshrined in the Constitution, women, especially black women, do not enjoy many of these rights concretely in their daily life. The organisations of civil society, including the social movements, reflect the struggle for women’s equity. For instance, within the social movements, even though women comprise the majority, the leadership is predominantly male. This also explains why women’s issues, struggles and campaigns are not consistently reflected within the movement.

Environmental justice

Similarly, women’s daily struggles to survive go to the heart of struggles for environmental justice including climate change. Many women are small farmers and eke out a living on the land where they are particularly susceptible to soil erosion, land exhaustion and drought. In many parts of the world, including Africa and Southern Africa, women are responsible for food production and food security. Access to land is often related to cultural considerations and the struggle for gender equity. The important choice or type of agricultural farming and the seeds that are used have an impact on biodiversity and the environment (see Mayet’s article in this edition). Often women are not consulted and/or donot participate in decision-making at different levels. This places them at a decided disadvantage as they often bear the burden of decisions made by others, in particular commercial and mining companies and national and local governments. Climate change, land degradation and water pollution is affected by the choices we make about what and how we produce. This affects food security, and women’s capacity for sustainable livelihoods. The struggle for food security is a burden which poor women bear daily.

While the social movements have taken up struggles related to water, housing, energy, unemployment and so forth, they do not however reflect how differently this affects women and men. Women make up the majority of the world’s population and they bear the burden of reproducing everyday life. This is similar in South Africa where black women are largely unskilled and unemployed, do low paid and precarious work, and they bear the burden of rearing children.

All social issues are gendered and affect women differently to men: it is women who walk to fetch water, search for firewood for cooking and heating and/or who largely respond to the privatisation and cut-offs of water and energy and seek shelter for their families. We therefore need to be more open to understanding how different social issues affect women and men differently as this has a bearing on how campaigns and struggles are taken up.

For this reason we cannot just talk about ‘gender’ which refers to relations between men and women as it does not explain the different ways in which women (and men) are affected. Instead we need to analyse how the different struggles for equity, for social services, for environmental justice, affect women and men. This will shape how we take up these struggles and thereby advance the struggle for equity within society as a whole. It is important that women lead the struggles for equity, for their own liberation.

Integrated perspective

One of the realisations of the popular struggles for land, for livelihoods and sustainable development in the post apartheid period, is the need to integrate issues of environmental justice into a holistic perspective of social justice. This has forced us to begin to loosen up and revisit pat solutions, understandings, and ways of organising. As humans beings we are ourselves part of nature and we need to be mindful of the environmental dimensions of resolving all social issues. For instance, the use of huge dams to deliver water is destructive to the environment, to villages and to human beings. The particular form of energy production we use needs to take into consideration issues such as the sustainable use of the earth’s resources, pollution, its accessibility for working people and the impact on human life, and on women. Therefore, sustainable living can only take place in communion with nature. The way of life of indigenous people all over the world reflects this understanding as respect for nature and all living things. It has been capitalist exploitation of nature – of land, water, energy and human life – that has led to the destruction of the environment and sustainable livelihoods. (See John Treat’s article in this edition on this.) It is therefore time that our movements integrate this perspective into all our social struggles.

The struggle for women’s equity and environmental justice is inter-related and goes to the heart of how we understand and organise social struggles. This will assist in building solidarity within the social justice movement between women and men. This will also reflect in the campaigns and struggles we engage in so that advances in environmental justice are also advances in the struggle for equity and the end of patriarchy.

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