Environmental policy and Gender Issues

BRIDGE (briefings on development and gender) is an information analysis service specialising in gender and development issues. BRIDGE's aim is to assist development professionals in government and non-government organisations to integrate gender concerns into their work. Based at the Institute of Development Studies, in the UK, BRIDGE was set up with financial assistance from OECD-DAC agencies. ODA funded this trial issue of Development and Gender in brief. Development and Gender in brief is a new publication providing concise, up-to-date briefings on key gender and development themes. In this issue, we ask whether recent changes in environmental policy have produced real benefits for women. Evidence suggests that many projects - in water and sanitation and social forestry, for example - fail to promote women's interests. The same is true of responses to environmental disasters such as the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone; women's needs were neglected leading to higher mortality among women than men. We also review the World Bank's new water resources management policy, which advocates water pricing to promote sustainable use. But can women pay? Currents, a special column on the back page, airs opinion on a different issue: the 'feminisation of poverty'.

Do environmental projects promote gender equity?

In the 1980s, governments and development agencies became much more aware of the need to consider gender issues in their environmental and natural resource management programmes. This led to changes in project design and implementation. It is too soon to say definitively how well this new gender-sensitive approach is working. But it may be a mistake to expect too much of the new style interventions.

Policy makers first came to appreciate that 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'. (World Bank, 1991). The exclusion of women from environmental projects - through outright neglect or belief in the gender neutrality of projects - would thus be a recipe for project failure.

Subsequently, donor agencies came to see women as especially vulnerable: 'their responsibilities as day-to-day environmental managers ...make women both victims of and contributors to the natural environment's degradation and pollution.' (Ibid).

On the other hand, gradually, awareness grew of many grassroots success stories of women fighting to conserve local resources - such as those described in Power to Change (Women's Feature Service, 1994). This then led to women being viewed as 'major local assets to be harnessed in the interests of better environmental management' (Davidson cited in Braidotti et al, 1994).

The new style of environmental project accordingly asks whether natural resource users are male or female and is concerned to 'reach the right people' in the delivery of services. For example, social forestry schemes have been redesigned, recognising the diverse uses of tree products and different species preferences of men and women: men typically want timber for construction and fencing, while women need fodder and woodfuel. And, in water and sanitation activities, women's participation on water committees or in maintaining facilities is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

"Women were seen as 'assets to be harnessed in the interests of better environmental management'"

But the ideas behind the new approach are not always honoured in practice. First, project intentions can be subverted. Leaving environmental management to community level institutions - such as those promoted by the Aga Khan programme in northern Pakistan - does not guarantee women's access to project resources. And the aim of involving women at all stages of the project cycle often translates into demands on women to do voluntary work, without giving them a fair share of project benefits.

Second, compared to a gender analysis of the underlying problems, environmental projects promote a limited set of aims. Policy documents (e.g. World Bank, 1991) acknowledge that lack of property rights reduces women's capacity to conserve environmental resources but the new approach does not address this issue. Donors still favour giving women access to credit, to help them manage resources and build up assets. This is naive in assuming that traditional male control over land and other assets will not extend to newly acquired natural resources. Trying to give women authority within isolated projects without taking into account their restricted property rights is almost bound to fail.

Is there any way of strengthening women's control over resources in environmental projects? Legal changes guaranteeing women independent property rights and increased political representation are needed at the national level. But such reforms take time. They also need to be complemented at the local level by building up women's capacity to claim the new rights attained.

One approach suggested for environmental projects is support for collective actions by women (Agarwal, 1994). This has the potential to confer inalienable use rights - though not necessarily property rights - over natural resources. Women have more chance of exercising rights as a group than as individuals. Wasteland development projects in India (such as the Bankora projects in West Bengal) have successfully supported women's group efforts to regenerate forest and improve land productivity. They also build on women's greater use rights over common property than on privatised lands. But women need to keep the initiative here: new government policies in India are formalising collective management of forests under male-dominated communal institutions, undermining women's traditional property rights in forest resources.

Support for women's collective actions in addressing natural resource management problems is one instance of a general strategy to strengthen women's bargaining power in their relations with men. Other examples need to be found to develop the policy relevance of this approach to a broad range of environmental problems.

Susan Joekes, IDS Fellow

Whose trees? Communal forestry in Ghana biased towards men

The two major uses for wood in rural Ghana are construction, a predominantly male activity, and fuelwood. With few exceptions, the provision of fuelwood is women's responsibility. Forest cover has declined in Ghana, particularly in the Northern Region but attempts to address the wood shortage are biased towards men. A fall in the availability of woodfuel increases the work of rural women who collect their own supplies. Shortages also force women to substitute agricultural residues for woodfuel, to economise by using food with reduced cooking time and to cut down on meals. Sheanut processing - once the main income-generating activity of women in northern Ghana - is also on the wane. Its high energy requirements are hard to meet as fuelwood stocks decline.

Recently, communal woodlots have been established to address the wood shortage in the Northern Region. But they mainly promoted neem trees, used by men in construction, rather than species used by women. Women in the Northern Region are unaccustomed to tree-planting. Such long-term investment is unattractive to women whose access to tree products depends on rights gained through marriage. Single women lack even these use rights. Also, men may oppose tree planting by women for fear that they might gain property rights as a consequence. Women's limited access to tree products is under threat from the decline in fallow and uncultivated areas as well as from shifts in inheritance practices. If forestry projects are to benefit women, these issues all need to be addressed.

From: BRIDGE Report no. 19: Background Paper on Gender Issues in Ghana, by S. Baden, C. Green, N. Otoo-Oyortey and T.Peasgood, commissioned by ODA, January 1994

Can't pay, won't pay! women priced out of the water market

Integrated water resources management (WRM) is currently high on the development agenda. It is the subject of a recent World Bank Policy Paper (1993). Given the likely influence of the Bank's new WRM policy - around 13 percent of Bank funds are invested in water projects - it is crucial to ensure that gender issues have not been overlooked.

The new WRM approach stresses the economic value of water as a scarce resource. Conservation and pricing are the main mechanisms proposed to limit waste and inefficient use. There is also a shift towards decentralised management and delivery of services, to reduce costs and increase the participation of water users. Pricing of water resources is aimed at moving water from low to high value uses. But as water markets develop, men may see gain in selling water for income, reducing women's access to water for non-market uses or in the production of 'low value' crops for household consumption.

Recent research reveals that women are often willing to pay more than men for improved services. But women are unable to commit to major financial outlays. Their desire for improved services may not be matched by ability to pay, or to command resources within the household. Pricing and financing mechanisms for water services must take this into account.

"Women's desire for improved services may not be matched by ability to pay"

Often, where communities have to pay for new water supplies, revenues prove surprisingly low. Affordability studies to determine appropriate water tariffs focus on men, whereas women pay a high proportion of new charges. In such cases, not only are some poor women denied access to water but overall project sustainability may be undermined due to lack of funds.

from BRIDGE Report no. 21: Water Resources Management: A Macro-level Analysis from a Gender Perspective, by C. Green with S. Baden, commissioned by SIDA, January 1994

Beyond community participation: women in water and sanitation

Women's participation is increasingly seen as crucial to the success of water supply and sanitation activities. But experience of involving women in water and sanitation projects shows that special efforts are required to extend women's participation beyond their traditional roles.

Development workers often feel gender issues are too sensitive to tackle. But success stories - such as the Dodota project in Ethiopia and the South Coast Handpump project in Kenya - show women can manage water and sanitation projects. Men may initially resist women taking on new roles but once aware of the benefits, their attitudes can change. Not only are services more effective as a result, but perceptions about gender roles may alter.

"Men initially resist women taking on new roles but their attitudes can change"

Existing village assemblies may not be the best way of involving women, if it is difficult for women to express their opinions freely in public. Setting up informal women's organisations alongside formal institutions can be more effective. But the location, timing and structure of meetings has to be planned to suit women, if they are to participate.

Key decisions on which to consult women include: the siting of water facilities; choice of technology; the selection of pump caretakers, water committee members and other personnel; and the choice and management of the financing system. If women are well represented at higher levels, grassroots participation will be more effective.

Special care must be taken that women's participation does not become just a source of cheap labour. To date, women's involvement has been largely in voluntary construction work or as water committee members, in stereotyped roles: fund-raising, collecting fees, health and hygiene education, or cleaning. With appropriate training, women can also be involved in technical and managerial aspects of water supply and sanitation. There is scope, for example, to involve women in the management of credit schemes and revolving funds. Experience from Bangladesh and Rajasthan in India shows that employing women rather than men as pump mechanics has higher initial costs but in the long term brings greater efficiency and social benefits.

from BRIDGE Report no. 11: Practical Strategies for Involving Women as Well as Men in Water and Sanitation Activities, by S. Baden, commissioned by SIDA, May 1993

Bangladesh cyclone response fails to meet women's needs

Environmental disasters are not always gender neutral. Studies in Bangladesh show that women suffered most following the 1991 cyclone and flood.

Among women aged 20-44, the death rate was 71 per 1000, compared to 15 per 1000 for men. Since emergency warnings were given mainly by loudspeaker and word of mouth, women's lower literacy does not explain these findings. Other factors lay behind women's higher mortality. Women were left at home by their husbands to care for children and protect property. Women's saris restricted their mobility. Women were malnourished compared to men and physically weaker. During the cyclone, the lack of purdah in public shelters may also have deterred women from seeking refuge.

"Women were left at home to care for children and protect property"

Following the cyclone, the lack of female personnel in emergency medical teams inhibited women from seeking medical care. Equipment taken into disaster areas was inadequate to meet the needs of women. Many women lose breast-feeding infants during environmental disasters. Pumps to express breast milk are essential to avoid serious infection and debilitating pain. Equipment and medication are also needed to handle the increase in miscarriages which always follows disasters.

from BRIDGE Report no. 26: Background Paper on Gender Issues in Bangladesh, by S. Baden, A.M. Goetz, C. Green and M. Guhathakurta, commissioned by ODA, August 1994

Gender and the environment: key references

Agarwal, B., 1995, A Field of One's Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, Cambridge University Press

Braidotti, R., E. Charkiewicz, S. Hausler and S. Wieringa, 1994, Women, the Environment and Sustainable Development:Towards a Theoretical Synthesis, Zed Books, London

Hombergh, H. van den, 1993, Gender, Environment and Development: a Guide to the Literature, International Books,Utrecht

Joekes, S., M. Leach, and C. Green, 1995, Gender Relations and Environmental Change, IDS Bulletin, vol. 26, no. 1, IDS,Brighton

Women's Feature Service, 1994, The Power to Change, Zed Books, London (or 1992, Kali for Women, New Delhi)

World Bank, 1991, Women's Crucial Role in Managing the Environment in Sub-Saharan Africa, Africa Technical Department, Women in Development Unit, Technical Note, IBRD, Washington

Currents in development and gender

Is poverty female?

It has become common in development circles to talk of the 'feminisation of poverty'. The phrase implies that poverty is becoming a female phenomenon, or that women are becoming poorer relative to men. This trend is often linked to an increase in the number of female-headed households, to the informalisation of labour markets and, generally, to the economic crises and adjustments of the 1980s in Latin America and Africa.

Because many studies on poverty do not look inside the household, evidence is lacking to show a feminisation of poverty. Moreover, the evidence we do have does not always show that more women than men are poor, or that their proportion among the poor, relative to men, is increasing. Certain groups of women - including some but by no means all female heads of household - may be particularly vulnerable to poverty. Women are discriminated against within the household, in legal and property rights, in access to financial resources, in labour markets and by public sector institutions. But not all women are poor and not all poor people are women. It does not advance attempts to combat gender discrimination, or assist in poverty alleviation efforts, if women and the poor are treated as synonymous.

A new BRIDGE Report explores in detail the complex relationship between gender discrimination and poverty.

from BRIDGE Report No. 30: Gender and Poverty, S. Baden with K. Milward, commissioned by SIDA, January 1995

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