Half the WorldWomen and environment [Archives:2005/883/Culture]

October 6 2005

By Nisha
Until now one does not hear much discussion on environmental issues in Yemen. And if one does come across a discussion, it is often limited to the island of Socotra or the World Bank or the Dutch grants for water projects. One does not come across points of argument around how women and men are affected differently by changes in environment. This is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Since there is no set discourse around environment and keeping in view the rise in consumerism, it is challenging to give a voice to the concern for environment. However, the absence of a set discourse also presents an opportunity to develop gender responsive dialogues on environmental conservation and protection. This could lead to formulation of interventions to address the different situation of women and men in relation to their dependence on environment or their different vulnerabilities to environmental degradation.

Experiences from different parts of the world suggest that the negative effects of environmental degradation are likely to hit the poorest people the hardest. Women among the poorest share a disproportionate share of responsibility related to meeting household needs such as fuel wood, drinking water, fodder for livestock and so on. They also depend on environment for raw material such as date palm leaves that helps them augment their family income. So scarcity of resources like water, for instance, will affect the entire population but it will affect women more adversely because they are more dependent on local water resources for fulfilling their traditional roles in the family, ie, drying up or pollution of natural springs means women have to walk longer in search of water, lack of irrigation water means decline in fodder production and that means walking longer distances in search of vegetation for livestock to graze, etc. In other words, disproportionate share of care responsibilities make poor women disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation. This vulnerability is made more serious by the fact that differences in property rights and actual ownership of agricultural property, poor access to information, and poor opportunities to acquire knowledge. Segregation between women and men and lack of mobility among women keep women and their concerns away from the decision-making. In other words, not only women and men are affected differently by environmental degradation, their abilities to change their situation in relation to environment are also different. Women, due to their exclusion from the public space, do not get opportunities to engage in environmental conservation and protection interventions.

An immediate consequence of environmental degradation for poor women is that their workload increases. A long term impact of increased workload is that women will have less time for leisure, and to find and use opportunities to improve their skills and move into non-traditional activities. This entire process that is centred around women spending more time fulfilling traditional reproductive roles, reinforces traditional division of labour and prevents women from shifting to productive work. To make discussions on environment and interventions associated with environment and livelihoods responsive towards women, it is important that gender based differences in immediate and long term impacts of environmental degradation are analysed and addressed.

Differences in dependence on environment, awareness about impact of environmental degradation and the opportunities to protect environment affect women and men's motivation to protect environment. In Yemeni context, it is hard to say if women are more inclined to protect environment and change practices that harm environment. A tremendous change in lifestyle is going on in Yemen and both women and men are part of this change. There is a greater emphasis on imported consumer and basic everyday use products. Exclusion of concerns for environment from public discourses act as a barrier to the development of a larger concern for environment. But one can say that socio-cultural factors like ghettoisation of women in the private sphere and perception of environmental conservation and protection as technical matters and women as technically incompetent leads to blocking of opportunities that might get women to develop a stake in environmental debates and interventions. Also, given poor women's dependence on natural resources to fulfil their traditional reproductive responsibilities, one can say that women would be more prepared to adopt environment friendly behaviour and participate in conservation efforts.

To understand the potential to improve environmental situation in Yemen, there is immediate need for research about gender aspects of environmental degradation. For example, with regard to water projects being implemented in Yemen there is a shortage of gender analysis. Such a gap means that water projects may not actually meet women's needs. Since these projects slant towards technology based interventions rather than traditional knowledge based conservation and protection, the jobs created through these projects are more likely to go to men than women. It is important, therefore, that women with understanding of gender relations and roles and environment are involved in environmental projects at all levels so that gender needs are analysed and addressed. There is also a need to meet the general information gap regarding Yemeni environment as well as information needs of women that could help them participate in environmental debates and interventions.

If gender needs in relation to environment are not taken into account, both deficit of interventions and the presence of gender blind or neutral interventions would have a negative effect on gender equality. Moreover, without participation of women at all levels and in decision-making, the mission of protecting and conserving environment may not be possible. Women's participation in environmental debates and interventions will improve their effectiveness and also offer greater potential of their sustainability.