Women & Environment
Gandhiji was once asked, "When we plan for our country, what should we remember most?" "Think of the last man", he replied.
Experience has taught us, however, that the last man is invariably a woman.
No other group is more affected by environmental destruction than poor village women. Every dawn brings with it a long march in search of fuel, fodder and water. It does not matter if the women are old, young or pregnant: critical household needs have to be met day after weary day. As ecological conditions worsen, the long march becomes ever longer and more tiresome.
Men might be cooking and washing on television but in the real world, these are still women’s jobs. The lower you go on the economy ladder, the fewer men are doing these ‘household activities’. In this economy ladder, after you go down a couple of rungs, there are no flashy microwave ovens, refrigerators and washing machines. The familiar red LPG cylinders also disappear somewhere around the middle. Towards the bottom, you would be lucky if you managed to uproot a few damp weeds to cook
Add social stigmas, dogmas, responsibilities and physical disadvantages to this. A woman at this level, does not matter if she is 80 or 8, pregnant or sick, has to ensure that her family has food to eat and water to drink, has to feed the animals the family has and if the husband is out looking for a job in a town, has to plough the fields. Women collect fuel wood, fetch water and care for the livestock — they are more bound to natural resources than men are. So it is not surprising that they pay a greater price when environmental degradation takes place.
Deforestation, water scarcity, soil degradation. Exposure to agricultural and industrial chemicals and organic pollutants. They all affect women's workloads, nutrition and health. For example, deforestation makes it more difficult to collect fuel wood. When women travel further and take more time to do these activities, girls become the first casualties. They’re usually taken out of school to assist their mothers.
These factors also put women at risk to malnutrition and reduce their economic productivity. A survey in Gujarat found that women on an average now spend four or five hours a day collecting fuel wood, where previously they would have done so once every four to five days. Environmental risks in the home may have a disproportionate impact on women's health because of women's different susceptibilities to the toxic effects of various chemicals. In fact, of the 3 million annual air pollution deaths, 2.8 million are from indoor air pollution.
The figure is 2.2 million people for developing countries. And the biggest at risk are rural women who spend hours in front of smoky chulhas. It is ironic that though women of the world are more involved in environmental activities and the most affected by degradation and pollution, they are kept out of environmental policies at the local, national and global levels. This despite the fact that they are better ecological managers than men.
"Men just expect to be served cooked food. They aren't bothered about where the firewood comes from. That is our problem!"
Poverty has a woman's face
Of the approximately 1.3 billion people living in poverty, 70% are women
There is a curious phenomenon happening in Indian villages. As the local environment is fast degrading, and weakened agricultural soils are breaking down under tremendous stress, the men are leaving their homes for towns to earn more money. Migration of agricultural labour from Bihar and UP takes place extensively as does that of fishermen from Kanyakumari. The destruction of forests and grazing lands has put extreme pressure on tribal and nomadic people, forcing them into landlessness and migration in search of jobs. What happens to the women left behind? Divorce rates are high among emigrants, and the wives are usually deserted.
Then there are added problems. Femaleheaded households are generally poorer than male-headed households. This is a worldwide phenomenon and one of the factors why 70% of the world’s poor are women. According to agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, women are the sole or chief breadwinners in 25 per cent of poverty-stricken families. Households where women are the sole adult income earners are already quite numerous: about 18.7 per cent of households in India, according to one estimate.
As fuel and fodder becomes scarcer, the traditional methods of manuring fields will be given up. Cowdung will be used as fuel but with the lack of manuring, these fragile soils will be exhausted very soon. A study notes that with receding forest cover, energy expended in direct agricultural activity as compared to energy expended in fodder and fuel collection will decrease every year as women will have to go further and further to gather wood and forage. A vicious circle which will push women more and more into poverty.
In some developing countries, girls spend more than 7 times as many hours in wood and water collection as compared to men. And a WHO estimate says that the energy used to carry water may consume one-third of a woman's daily calorie intake. In a study in Pura, a village in Karnataka, women were found to contribute 46 per cent of all the human-hours spent in the village on agriculture, industry and domestic work, men 37 per cent and children 17 per cent. Basic activities like fetching fuel and water and cooking food took as much as 10 hours in poor households. A study from the plains of western UP, an agriculturally prosperous area, shows that even pregnant women there had a 14-16 hour working day.
Their next Herculean labour is cooking on inefficient chulhas, which consume too much fuel and belch dangerous smoke affecting women and children in particular. Indoor air pollution kills more people in developing countries than polluted outdoors.
Women are more exposed to the hazards of polluted water than men. They are not only the primary carriers of water, but they wash clothes and utensils too, the poor mostly with polluted water. Moreover, since childcare is primarily the woman's responsibility, when children get infected, women are more likely to catch the infection than men.
As food becomes scarce during extreme conditions like drought, men migrate to search for work in the towns, but the women are left behind to fend for the children and the old. Households where women are the sole bread earners tend to be poorer.
Foresters are keen to ban grazing in forests because they see it as a threat to their afforestation efforts. Even where it is not banned, women are regularly harassed by foresters and have to pay heavy bribes or face sexual harassment. In the Bankura district of West Bengal, tribal santhal women got the basic means of livelihood from the forest, collecting free of cost the fruit, flowers and leaves of the Mahua, Peasal, Kendu and other trees. Over the last three decades, their customary rights were gradually taken away, leaving no alternative but migration.
Toxic chemicals and pesticides in air, water and earth are responsible for a variety of women's health risks. They enter body tissues and breast milk, through which they are passed on to infants. In a village in China's Gansu province, discharges from a state-run fertiliser factory have been linked to a high number of stillbirths and miscarriages.
Water pollution in three Russian rivers is a factor in the doubling of bladder and kidney disorders in pregnant women, and in Sudan a link has been established between exposure to pesticides and perinatal mortality-with the risk higher among women farmers.