By Ipsita Kumar
In 1988, the World Commission on Environment and Development, headed by the then Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland, released the report “Our Common Future.” This report was the starting point of all things related to sustainable development. Four years later, in 1992, the Earth Summit took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where the Agenda 21 was released to make a stronger stand on sustainable development. The two summits set the stone for later agreements such as the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. However, women’s empowerment, although mentioned, has not been really taken forward.
Women, as the food, fuel and water collectors for most households in developing countries, and especially in rural areas, suffer more in terms of poverty as well as unequal access to natural resources. To illustrate, women, who are the major crop producers, producing around 60–80% of the food in most developing countries, hold a very small proportion of land. Less than 20% landholders are women. However, if women in rural areas had the same access as men do to land, technology, financial services, education and markets, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million. These figures make an emphatic case for women’s equal (or at least improved) land rights in achieving the three pillars of sustainable development (economic, environmental and social).
The role of civil society and knowledge
The Future We Want outcome document has highlighted the important role of civil society and KBIs, which moves forward in many critical ways. However, it is also heavily criticized in terms of its treatment of the broader and strategic needs of one of the nine ‘nine major groups’ i.e. women. Though the 1992 commitments to expand social inclusion have been reinforced, Rio+20 failed to advance on key politically contested areas. One of the principal elements not accounted for in the document is women’s reproductive rights, an area which the MDG framework has proven is critical and fundamental to sustained human development, choice and opportunity for all. This was also termed “reproductive justice” in a recent article by Rebecca Lefton. Representatives of the Women’s Major Group perceive this as a “roll-back” and “believe that the governments of the world have failed both women and future generations.” This “seemingly” indirect link between reproductive health rights and sustainable development underscores the urgency in moving beyond GDP and other purely quantitative measures once and for all. After all, wellbeing is key to growth and development as well as sustainability as well as defined by them.
When we miss the links between pollution and health and the implications for productivity, we hinder and limit the people power of and for sustainability. The Women’s Major Group also noted the lack of “reference to radioactive pollution and its devastating impact on our health and our environment, including rivers, aquifers, food and air” in the Outcome Document. Such missing links are often more costly to women who, due to their socially prescribed roles are at the centre of food security, energy security and water security at the household levels. It is often by their efforts alone, with their attendant risks, that households have any access at all to these resources.
Beyond the issues of disadvantage and deprivation, women and their empowerment bring a number of positives to the complexity of balancing the economic, social and environmental. Unfortunately, this role is recognized in a largely ad hoc manner across a number of international agreements. Civil society has had a fundamental role in drawing attention to these inconsistencies and tensions. Highlighting the benefits and costs and keeping attention focused on several justice and equity concerns has been crucial. They have also been pivotal in ensuring that women’s voices are heard as well as training them to adapt to a changing environment. Knowledge-based Institutions and networks complement this work by delivering the evidence to back the advocacy, by highlighting “how” and not just “what”, by showcasing examples which are adaptable and by influencing policies and governments in different ways. More than ever, the two groups now must work hand-in-hand to address this continued gap between the social and the environmental (and between women’s empowerment and the management of natural resources).
Thus more is needed and will be demanded from civil society and KBIs to deliver across global, national and local frontiers of development where people’s lives are often determined by the efficacy or inefficacy of policy and more so how it is applied. If half of the world is not involved, can it even be defined as sustainable or as development?
Ipsita Kumar works at the TERI The Energy and Resources Institute, in India