Women and sustainability

A sustainable future calls for a systematic dismantling of the current order of under-representation of women in the fields of energy, transport and more

December 26, 2021 12:35 am | Updated December 27, 2021 12:49 am IST

Rajasthan, India - February 27, 2013: women lugging a water pot on their head. Due to the lack of piped water, poor tribals have to fetch water from its natural sources.

Rajasthan, India - February 27, 2013: women lugging a water pot on their head. Due to the lack of piped water, poor tribals have to fetch water from its natural sources.

I peered at the pile of newspapers resting immaculately inside the drawer, unsure of whether I will be able to craft a garbage bag out of them. In what was touted as a “no glue and no-stapler pin paper bag”, the instructions for crafting it on my phone screen seemed rather daunting. My origami skills were put to test as I made the first crease, the last and all folds in-between.

More than two years ago, I decided to cut down on single-use plastics at home. When my attempt at making bin liners turned out to be successful, I began reusing old newspapers to replace plastic garbage bags with manually made paper-liners. Likewise, I favour paper or fabric for regular storage purposes. Additionally, I prepare batches of homemade bio-enzymes for surface-cleaning instead of using store-bought chemicals.

Sustainability readily finds a place within the larger framework of mindful living. Naturally, even at the peak of the lockdown, such practices were sacrosanct.

Growing concerns around climate change and environmental degradation have heralded sustainability as a way of life. Within little more than a century since the pre-industrial era, we have warmed the earth by around 1.2 degrees Celsius. This in turn is leading to periods of intense and unrelenting heat globally that is affecting lives and destroying habitats. Further, as COVID-19 pandemic necessitated use of single-use plastics such as masks, gloves and face-shield, it has increased the overall level of plastic waste generated exponentially.

The stakes are high. Changing climate and deterioration of environment together are mankind’s moment of truth. Interestingly, the world over, women have been at the forefront of leading initiatives that tackle challenges associated with both climate and the environment. A study of 25 developed and 65 developing countries shows that countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more likely to reserve protected land areas. In the world of commerce, research shows corporations that have more women on its boards invest better in renewable energy. It takes the presence of at least two women on the primary governing body of a business for it to integrate more environment-friendly activities in its practices. Similarly, better outcomes await forest conservation initiatives when women are the vanguards of forest management, as evidence from India and Nepal indicates.

In poor households and in rural areas, women routinely assume additional labour in the form of fetching drinking water, walking long distances to collect firewood, initiating solutions to prevent their homes from getting too hot during summers, amongst others. These tasks, if left unfulfilled can threaten the well-being of women and their families, while also declining the quality of their lives. Tapping into this resourcefulness of women, advocacy groups and organisations across the world have launched programmes to empower communities at the grassroots to respond to the effects of changing climate. These communities, spearheaded by women, have been implementing climate resilient solutions such as rainwater harvesting and sprinkler taps, low-cost roof cooling options to reduce temperatures within homes, and soil conservation and tree plantation, among others.

In certain situations, women might be bereft of any choice and hence, pro-environment or climate sensitive initiatives then are outcomes of the lack of choice. In yet other scenario, pursuance of such activities might be a purely individual decision. That said, the correlation between women and sustainability is wholesome. The relationship is almost inextricable, though not entirely inexplicable. Women are chiefly charged with roles of nurturers, comforters and tending to others at the expense of forgetting to care for themselves. Of particular importance is the proverbial ‘maternal instincts’ inbuilt in women that hardwires them to the long-term security and prospects of those they are surrounded with. Because these aspects are concerned with the future, it requires regulating behaviour and exercising caution in the present. Such nuances aptly place women in the position of preservers — prowess of the larger good definitely demands a certain refinement. Women’s role as caretakers of families renders them ideal as stewards of natural resources. So while society preaches health over wealth, conservation over waste and cleanliness over carelessness; women, in one way or the other, have been diligent actors of the same.

Expectedly, this has prolific policy implications. For a future where sustainability is a way of life, a more gender diverse labour force is one way to go. It calls for a systematic dismantling of the current order of underrepresentation of women in fields of energy, transport and more. Crisis unites and this time, it presents a fresh opportunity to lower the gender disparity in workforce and include more women in decision making. Or perhaps, the challenge of gender inequity has repackaged itself in a new bottle of climate and environmental deterioration. Whatever may be the lens used for examining this emergency, justice-based solutions will be the mainstay of dealing with it.

Fortunately, the world has enough existing solutions to ensure that a greater number of women have access to opportunities of participation in the economy. There is nothing quite like hindsight and past experiences are reminders to negotiate traps of stereotyping, slotting and judging women - instead, making a case for having women at the heart of a sustainable future requires a fine-toothed comb. Oh and speaking of combs — I recently switched to one made of neem wood.


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