Gender and the Environment

Historical Background

Although the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, 1972, which also saw the establishment of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), officially linked the physical environment and society in its title, in the 1960s and 1970s social issues were still largely disconnected from environmental policies and programmes. When the World Conservation Strategy – living resource conservation for sustainable development (IUCN, UNEP, WWF) -  was launched in 1980, the focus of that document on social-environmental linkages still was presented in a gender-neutral way.


The Third UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985, however, was among the first international fora that made explicit the linkages between sustainable development and women’s involvement and empowerment as well as gender equality and equity. In the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies, ‘the environment’ was included as an area of concern for women.

During the Nairobi conference in 1985, UNEP hosted a special Session on Women and the Environment, and UNEP’s  Senior Women Advisors Group (SWAG) was established to advice the organization on bringing a gender perspective in its environmental programme. 


In the run-up to the" target="_blank">United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, the UN Secretariat for UNCED, UNEP and the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) as well as NGOs such as WEDO and WorldWIDE, undertook a number of advocacy activities that reflected the conclusions reached at the 1985 Nairobi NGO-Forum workshops, that stated: “The growth of women’s power and the sustainability of development are ecologically tied.”(ELC, 1985). They underlined that women not only bear the highest costs of environmental problems, but as m”(ELC, 1985). They underlined that women not only bear the highest costs of environmental problems, but as managers of primary resources, also have the greatest potential for contributing to the solution of the crisis.

The advocacy activities during the UNCED process resulted in a reasonably engendered ‘Agenda 21’, not only including more than 145 references to the specific roles and positions of women in environment and sustainable development, but also a separate chapter 24 entitled ‘Global action for women towards sustainable development’. This chapter acknowledges the need for a broad participation of women – as a major group – at all governmental levels and in all UN agencies related activities in sustainable development, as well as the need for the integration of a gender perspective on sustainable development planning and implementation. 

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 identified environment as one of twelve critical areas for women. Section K of the Beijing Platform for Action, on women and the environment, asserted that “women have an essential role to play in the development of sustainable and ecologically sound consumption and production patterns and approaches to natural resource management” (paragraph 246).


Five years later at the Millennium Summit in New York, world leaders promised in the Millennium Declaration “to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable”. This vision was reflected in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including MDG 1, eradicate extreme poverty, MDG 3  promote gender equality and empower women, and MDG 7 ensure environmental sustainability. However, until now, in governmental reporting on MDG 7 environmental linkages to gender equality are neglected.


As input for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, women as major group prepared two documents (ECOSOC/UN, 2001 and 2002), in which progress on the implementation of Agenda 21 from a gender perspective was reviewed. It was concluded that at international, national and local levels important steps had been taken, but that these were rather scattered and that most had an ad hoc character. The review showed that there has been no real integration of gender issues into global environment and sustainable development policies and activities, let alone a thorough mainstreaming of gender concerns in these areas.


Instead of real implementation, more commitments were made. Principle 20 of the Johannesburg Declaration of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) reads: “We are committed to ensure that women’s empowerment and emancipation, and gender equality are integrated in all activities encompassed within Agenda 21, the Millennium Development Goals, and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.”  Among the 153 paragraphs of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) 30 refer to gender aspects. These deal with: benefits of sustainable development to women; the elimination of violence and discrimination; access to health services; access to land and other resources (particularly in Africa); the enhancement of the role of women in resources management; education for all; participation of women; gender mainstreaming; and gender specific information and data. Major advocacy efforts resulted in a decision by the Commission on Sustainable Development at its 11th session in 2003 to make gender a cross-cutting issue in all its upcoming work up until 2015.


In a global context in which gender inequality proves to be one of the most pervasive forms of inequality (UNDP, 2005), the international community during the 10 year Review of the Beijing Platform for Action>, recommitted itself to the global goal of gender equality and the empowerment of women.