When I first came across the term, ‘Eco-feminism’, I thought it was just another highly convoluted buzzword. But upon closer examination, Eco-feminism provides a really interesting perspective on the unique impact environmental issues have upon women, particularly in developing countries.
To some, it may seem particularly absurd to view environmental issues through a feminist lens. Of course, problems of toxic waste, contaminated water, air pollution, world hunger, (to name a few), are not exclusively female issues: they are universal. However, while environmental degradation has an immediate, tangible impact upon everybody, statistics show that it affects a higher percentage of women than men.
What is Eco-feminism?
Eco-feminism is a movement that sees a parallel connection between the destruction of the environment and the oppression of women. Like feminism, Eco-feminism seeks to address inequality and remove existing power structures [patriarchy, hierarchy] that degrade the natural world and disempower women.
The United Nations Environment Programme suggests that, ‘Around the world, environmental conditions impact the lives of women and men in different ways as a result of existing inequalities. Gender roles often create differences in the ways men and women act in relation to the environment, and in the ways men and women are enabled or prevented from acting as agents of environmental change.’
Why should these problems concern feminists?
Eco-feminism seeks to highlight and address the problems of existing patriarchal power structures that seek to dominate, and derive value from, both the earth and women. This isn’t to suggest that men are to blame for all environmental problems. Rather, it proposes that such issues have a unique impact upon women, especially in developing countries.
Globally, women have less socioeconomic power than men and are more likely to experience poverty. In the U.K. alone, women are more likely to be affected by economic fluctuations, the discrepancies in wages and the prices of necessary items, namely sanitary products.
A global view: environmental degradation in developing countries.
A study by BBC News declared that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. In developing countries, much of the disempowerment of women is related to ecological problems.
Greta Gaard suggests that ‘Globally, women produce approximately 80% of the world’s fuel supplies, and for this reason women are most severely affected by food and fuel shortages and the pollution of water sources.’
Women in Third World countries are dependent upon the natural environment for their livelihood and therefore have a unique relationship to the effects of its degradation. In most households, it is the women who are the primary care-givers for their children, and the gatherers of food and water.
Often young girls will walk miles daily to collect water with their mothers, making them less likely to attend school. In urban areas, women from low-income households are exploited for labour in factories where they are exposed to harsh chemicals and contamination.
Furthermore, the inadequacy, or indeed the absence, of supplies of contraception, protection against STDs and sanitary products uniquely contribute to the hardship and disempowerment of women in developing countries. The female body thus becomes a means by which women are degraded physically, socially and economically.
Like the world around us, women are still intrinsically viewed as commodities and regarded as a means of production and profitability. Research suggests that in developing countries, women particularly struggle to defend their reproductive and sexual rights. Women are used in the same way as natural resources: they are taken and devastated.
In the case of natural disasters, the death toll is higher for women than men in societies with a greater gender disparity. An OXFAM report after the 2004 Tsunami found that the number of men who survived outnumbered women by almost 3:1 in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. Factors such as the inability to swim due to inadequate education, and the lack of ownership of technology, [women are often denied economic possession of necessities such as mobile phones], make women even more vulnerable to the devastating effects of natural disasters.
Why should we care about eco-feminism?
- Do you care about the environment?
- Do you wish for world equality, where women, men and nature are treated with equal respect?
- Do you wish for more women to be in positions of power?
- Do you care about women in other parts of the world?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Eco-feminism is the movement for you.
The bottom line
Ecofeminism does not limit its scope to feminist issues. It highlights the deep and insidious effects of a hierarchical and exploitative society and gives credence to the legitimate demands of poor nations. In its mission to challenge power hierarchies, Eco-feminism seeks to involve women in the efforts to mitigate environmental issues and thus address their disempowerment in more ways than one.
Ultimately, Eco-feminism sanctions women’s unique vulnerability to environmental issues, particularly in developing countries, and advocates their voices as an integral part of the battle against climate change.
- Check out the following websites for a list of charities that provide services to support and empower women across the world:
- Ending period poverty. Support UK based charities such as ‘Always’ and ‘Action Aid’ that are dedicated to providing women with the necessary materials for menstruation. You can find many places in public toilets to donate sanitary products.
- Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva, Introduction to Ecofeminism, 1993