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Figure 1: Women in government, 2002

Source: Adapted from Seager 2003
©Myriad Editions/

A key step in ensuring that women are considered, and take part in, policy-making is that they should be equitably represented in decision-making bodies, at every level from local to national and global.

After almost two decades of attempts to address gender concerns, women still account, on average, for less than 10 per cent of the seats in national parliaments (World Bank 2003). Nowhere in the world do women have equal representation with men in government, and in only 22 countries do they represent 25 per cent or more of legislators (Figure 1). The nations with the highest shares of women in elected office are those that enforce explicit policies promoting equality - most notably, the Scandinavian countries (Seager 2003). To date, only Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway have achieved a 30 per cent or higher share of seats for women in parliaments or legislatures (World Bank 2003).

The Beijing Platform for Action, developed at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, calls for at least 30 per cent representation by women in national governments. Quota or reservation systems that ensure a minimum level of female representation are now in place in more than 25 countries. An increasing number of women are active in local governance, in city councils and mayoralties. In India, for instance, there were close to a million elected women leaders at the village level in 2001 (Seager 2003). At the level of international governance, in both developed and developing countries, women are in the minority in positions of authority where decisions that affect the environment are taken. While global environmental processes have reiterated the need to empower and involve women, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which came into force in 2004, is the first treaty to clearly call for a balanced inclusion of women in the convention process itself. One positive development, however, is the formation of a Network of Women Ministers of the Environment, aimed at strengthening women's positions in environmental decision making (Box 4).

Box 4: Network of Women Ministers of the Environment

In March 2002, 22 women ministers for the environment and 28 women leaders of intergovernmental and non-governmental environmental organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America met in Helsinki, Finland. The meeting resulted in the creation of a Network of Women Ministers of the Environment (NWME) with a secretariat in Washington DC.

NWME is part of a new architecture of organizations founded to advance global democracy, excellence in governance and gender equality. It operates under the auspices of the Council of Women World Leaders, founded in 1996, and the International Assembly of Women Ministers, created in 2002.

NWME recognizes that women constitute a majority of the world's poor, but are severely under-represented in policy-making roles. Given that women can bring to the table new ideas, approaches and strategies for protecting people and natural resources, the Network focuses on increasing the involvement of women in sustainable development issues. Some of its activities include:

  • Developing recommendations for practical solutions to environmental problems confronting nations and the world;
  • Building partnerships with appropriate civil society, non-governmental and intergovernmental agencies;
  • Exchanging best-practice experiences in order to implement more effective policies; and
  • Creating a critical mass of leadership to influence international and national policy.

For 2004-05, NWME has identified demography and sanitation, fresh water, energy and sustainable security as priority issues. In 2005, for the tenth anniversary of the Beijing Conference on women, the Network will explore gender and environmental perspectives of the Beijing goals.

Source: NWME 2004


Progress is being made within the United Nations system in advancing gender mainstreaming. Key UN agencies devoted specifically to gender issues include the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), United Nations International Research and Training Center for the Advancement of Women, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, and the Commission on the Status of Women. These institutions provide leadership on substantive gender issues and processes of gender mainstreaming.

Women's environmental action has been most effective at the local level, where they have greatest voice and autonomy. At the grassroots, women have often become major forces for environmental change. The 'Chipko' or 'hug the trees' movement was started by women protecting their natural resource base in the Himalayas from logging in the 1970s (Box 5). It provided inspiration to environmentalists across the world, and contributed to a better understanding of the links between poverty and the environment. It was commonly believed then that environmental concerns were the luxury of the rich. The drastic steps taken by the local community showed that environmental concerns were in fact a matter of life and death for the poor.

Box 5: Women defend the trees

Bali Devi, one of the leaders of the Chipko movement, at the 2004 meeting of Women as the Voice for the Environment.
Source: IISD

The Uttarakhand region in the Himalayan foothills in India is rich in forest resources such as timber, limestone, magnesium, and potassium, which have been commercially exploited over the centuries. Forest conservation policies traditionally restricted the access of local communities to these forests. Combined with large-scale deforestation due to logging, these policies resulted in large-scale migration from the region. In the 1960s, entire villages were depopulated.

Women often stayed behind in the villages. They faced increasing difficulties as environmental degradation deepened and spread, resulting in acute water, fuelwood and fodder shortages. Communities gave up raising livestock, adding to the problems of malnutrition in the region. Natural disasters increased in intensity as watersheds were deforested and flooding and erosion increased.

The increasing adversity of hill life prompted local people to resist the destruction of their land and livelihoods. The first confrontation occurred when a forest concession was granted to an outside company rather than to local interests. Activists fanned out across the Himalayas to organize communities against commercial logging operations that threatened their livelihoods.

In 1974, state government and contractors diverted the men of Reni village to a fictional compensation payment site, while labourers disembarked from trucks to start logging operations. Under the leadership of Gaura Devi, a 50-year old illiterate woman, women left their homes to hug the trees and prevent them from being cut. A four-day standoff ended in victory for the villagers.

The actions of the women of Reni were repeated in several other places in the region, as hill women demonstrated their new-found power as non-violent activists. Their spontaneous movement eventually culminated in the banning of tree felling above 1 000 metres in 1980, by India's then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Bali Devi, one of the leaders of the Chipko movement, at the 2004 meeting of Women as the Voice for the Environment.

Source: Rawat 1996

In Kenya, the Green Belt Movement, started by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, demonstrated that tree planting can improve the lives of women, provide sustainable livelihoods, and conserve the environment. Professor Maathai founded the movement on Earth Day 1977. Since then, 50 000 people have planted 30 million indigenous trees on farms and school and churchyards all over Kenya. They were paid for every seedling that survived. A Pan African Green Belt Network has been set up, and similar initiatives established in other countries including Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

The Green Belt initiative has multiple benefits. It empowers women, provides them with a sustainable livelihood, and promotes self-sufficiency. It provides them with fuel wood, prevents soil erosion, protects catchments, provides shade, and creates windbreaks for crops. In recent years, the movement has broadened to include issues of food security and production of indigenous food crops, many of which had been abandoned in favour of export crops such as coffee, tea and flowers. As Professor Maathai remarked, "Implicit in the act of planting trees is a civic education, a strategy to empower people and to give them a sense of taking their destiny into their own hands" (Maathai 2004).

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