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Training women in decision making in the Himalayas.
Source: UNEP/ICIMOD Project

Understanding the relationship between people and the environment is increasingly seen as a key to achieving sustainable development. However, that relationship is extremely complex, both to understand and to manage. There is immense geographic diversity within the environmental resources that provide humans with essential goods and services. Resources are unevenly distributed, and conditions change over time. On the human side, people interact differently with, and are affected differently by, the environment.

Many of these differences can be traced to the human and social attributes that distinguish different individuals and communities. Gender is one of the most significant (Box 1). It shapes how people impact the environment, and how they, in turn, are impacted by the environment and environmental change. Sustainable development polices and actions have been found to be more effective when gender factors are taken into account, and when both men and women are involved equally at all stages of identifying and implementing solutions to problems.

Box 1: Some definitions

Gender: A person's sex is biological, but gender is social. Gender is what society makes of sex: it is the accumulation of social norms about what men and women 'should' be and do. For example, the fact that women give birth and men do not is a consequence of their sex. The fact that taking care of children is considered women's work almost everywhere in the world is a gender role. Ideas about gender shape personal relationships and institutions at all scales from the household to governmental agencies. While sex is more or less fixed, gender roles and perception are highly variable and changeable.

Gender analysis: The purpose of gender analysis is to understand the social, cultural and economic relations between women and men in different arenas. Gender analysis is not just about women: men are also part of the picture. It requires an examination of fundamental issues such as:

  • The distribution of power between men and women;
  • The ways in which notions of masculinity and femininity are defined and enacted in everyday life;
  • The social roles and needs of women and men; and
  • The gender dimensions of institutions.

Gender mainstreaming: This is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of all planned actions. It is a strategy for making women's as well as men's concerns and experiences an integral dimension when designing, implementing and evaluating policies and programmes in all spheres, so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated (WEDO 2003a).

The central role of gender in achieving sustainable development has been acknowledged increasingly in development and environment policies, including in Agenda 21, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) of the World Summit on Sustainable Development. However, the focus remains on promoting equity as a goal in itself, rather than on a deeper understanding of how and why gender concerns (which involve both men and women) are important to achieve sustainable development (Box 2).

Box 2: The gender perspective in Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000 as part of the Millennium Declaration, signed by 191 countries, and focus on peace, security, development, environmental sustainability, human rights and democracy.

There are eight goals, which are seen as interconnected and mutually reinforcing agents of sustainable development. A list of 18 quantitative targets and 48 indicators have been identified for the goals, most of which are to be achieved by 2015.

Goal 3 calls for the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. It is recognized that this is central to the achievement of the other seven MDGs. Attempting to achieve the MDGs without promoting gender equality will raise the costs and decrease the likelihood of achieving the other goals.

Most signatories to the Millennium Declaration are preparing country level MDG reports as a mechanism for tracking progress. A review of 13 of these reports by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reveals that:

  • Gender is not reflected as a cross-cutting issue in any of the reports;
  • Goal 3, which deals specifically with gender, is the only goal where gender issues have been consistently addressed by countries;
  • Apart from Goal 3, gender issues are most frequently addressed under Goal 5 (maternal mortality);
  • Gender issues are mentioned under Goal 1 (poverty) in six reports;
  • Women are mentioned under Goal 7 (environment) and Goal 8 (development cooperation) in only one report each (Mozambique and Mauritius respectively).

The UNDP report concludes that including gender as a mainstream issue is still patchy, and is restricted primarily to the obvious sectors of women's empowerment and maternal mortality. The confinement of gender issues within women-specific sectors occurs almost universally - there is no significant difference between reports authored by the UN system, national governments, or independent consultants.

The inclusion of gender perspectives and women's concerns under Goals 5 and 6 (to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases), plus the invisibility of women in discussions on Goals 7 (environment) and 8 (development cooperation) in all but two reports, suggests that women are still seen mainly in terms of their vulnerabilities and roles as mothers or victims rather than as actors in development.

Despite the rights-based perspective reflected by most reports in the discussion on Goal 3, recognition of the importance of gender in relation to the other goals continues to be limited. For instance, women's lack of knowledge of care and feeding practices is often cited as a barrier to achieving the goal on reducing child mortality. Such a formulation ignores other gender-related variables that affect child survival, including the role of fathers in parenting and care.

Source: UNDP 2003a

Despite the growing recognition of gender as an important cross-cutting issue, it is rarely addressed in a balanced way. Gender is usually perceived as a synonym for 'women', and women are often treated as a single homogenous social group without much differentiation by age, income or subculture. The majority of gender analyses in the environment field focus on women from poor communities in developing countries. Whilst this focus is understandable because 70 per cent of the world's poor are women (UNDP 1995), and the poor are the most vulnerable to ecological degradation, it does not provide the level of understanding of gender-environment interlinkages needed to include this dimension fully in environmental decision making. To provide comprehensive perspectives, gender analyses must encompass men and women, young and old, from rich and poor backgrounds, in urban and rural situations, as producers and consumers of the planet's resources and as drivers and recipients of environmental change.

Understanding of the different priorities and perceptions of men and women can be used to maximize policy effectiveness. In natural resource management, for instance, men may prioritize income-generation through short-term natural resource use, while women may be more concerned with long-term security for the family in food, water and energy. A World Bank water and sanitation project in Morocco found that men were primarily interested in constructing rural roads and ensuring a supply of electricity. Women were mainly concerned with the lack of potable water near their homes - many had to walk as far as five kilometres to the nearest source (World Bank 2003).

Policy development also needs to take account of the different environmental hazards and health risks that men and women are exposed to because of their different livelihoods. For example, men may be at greater risk of exposure to toxic chemicals used in mining, while women may be at greater risk from pesticides used in the floriculture industry.

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