'Time to act on water, energy and gender'

Posted: 10 September 2002

Author: Angela Castellanos

Throughout the 1990s, major United Nations conferences, including the Earth Summit in Rio, stressed the importance of including women in sustainable development. Now at the end of the latest World Summit it seems that many of the commitments remain only on paper. Women continue to face many of the same obstacles they did 10 years ago.

"I do not see any progress since the Earth Summit",says Doris Mpoumou of the Women´s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO). "Agenda 21 (the Earth Summit's Plan of Action) was a wonderful document - we just have to start implementing it. And to do that we need human resources and financial resources. The problem is that Overseas Development Assistance is decreasing,"

WEDO works towards the recognition of and action on the gender-related aspects of sustainable development issues. It provided key research data to the Johannsburg summit.

"We put three issues on the table at the WSSD: reproductive rights of women, balance, and political access," says Mpoumou. "It is notacceptable that 52 years after the foundation of the United Nations we women - and civil society in general - have to lobby for access to these meetings."

In Johannesburg, women came as one of the nine major groups mentioned in Agenda 21. The Women's Action tent (in the NGO Global Forum) was the venue of numerous side events, debates and cultural programmes.

"At the Rio Earth Summit, very few people talked about women. Energy was not a big issue, nor water; but now all these issues were on the WSSD agenda," points out Adelia de Melo Branco, head of the Department of Environment and Gender of the Brazilian Government's Institute for Research.

Water managers

All over the world, women´s lives are intimately connected to and affected by water resources. In developing countries, women are the main providersof water for household use. As the primary retrievers and managers of water, women - and often their children - suffer greater consequences when water supplies become contaminated or scarce. An estimated 30 per cent women in Egypt walk over an hour a day to meet water needs.

The percentages of rural women affected by water scarcity are estimated at 55 per cent in Africa, 32 per cent in Asia and 45 per cent in Latin America. In addition, women are often the caregivers for those who fall ill from water-related diseases. Most times, women are called upon to take on the additional labour or other responsibilities of those who have fallen ill.

Energy is another vital factor in the direct and critical relationship between women and natural resources. In developing countries, there are currently almost two billion people who rely on traditional fuels such as wood, dung and agricultural residues for heating and cooking.

Gathering fuel

Close to the same number, mostly in rural areas, do not have electricity. Women are, in the majority of cases, most affected by the lack of electricity, since they are usually responsible for performing household chores. Scarcity (or lack) of energy services increases the physical burden on women because they have to walk long distances to gather fuel to meet household needs.

There are other health risks too. Worldwide, close to two million premature deaths each year are attributable to air pollution from indoor fires.

Energy scarcity limits women´s ability to engage in income-generating activities, when those are available. In such contexts, women often have a low self-esteem and their participation in decision-making processes is limited. Despite the experience and knowledge they acquire through the provision, management and safeguarding of natural resources, women are often left out of the decision-making process relating to environmental issues.

Gender equity

"Often policy makers do not think about women when they frame policies. For example in Brazil, when we think about droughts nobody thinks about women. The government thinks of men losing their lands, of men migrating. But when men migrate, women become the heads of the households, and it is very difficult to survive in such situations.

That is why we are trying to raise awareness about the need to include women as beneficiaries of projects. Because if we focus on women we actually promote gender equity, and by doing that we are promoting sustainable development," explains Adelia de Melo Branco.

The participation of both women and men in sustainable development policymaking has been increasing as a result of the implementation of Local Agenda 21, the Earth Summit's Plan of Action for municipalities.

A 1996 survey of Local Agenda 21 projects, in 2,500 municipalities, 53 per cent reported that women were included in decision-making processes. But,according to WEDO, few municipalities have made consistent efforts in this direction.

Future generatons

"It isn't easy to be heard because when you talk about women, people associate it with radical feminism. Nowadays, we talk about women in the context of gender relations. So it is not a question of doing something for women only because they are women but because if something benefits women it benefits the community and future generations. We are the ones who educate our children. Actually we have a lot of power - we have the power to change," says Branco.

Although in countries of the North, women have more access to water, energy and other natural resources, there is an increasing population here that suffers from energy poverty. In the United States, 15 per cent women and 12 per cent men are below the poverty line; and in Britain, seven million households (36 per cent of the total) suffered from fuel poverty in 1991.

What is common in the South as well as the North is the under-representation of women at decision-making levels, and a predominantly maleleadership in environment- and sustainable development-elated organisations and institutions. For instance, at the UN Commissions on Sustainable Development in 1997, 1998 and 2000, the percentage of all-male delegations increased from 30.8 per cent to 35.3 per cent and then to 41.9 cent.

Quite obviously then, ensuring the full and equal participation of women in sustainable development remains one of the main challenges for the future.

Source: Women's Feature Service