By Dr Cesar Chelala
The growing worldwide demand for resources is threatening the world’s environmental health to an unprecedented extent. There is widespread agreement that unless new and more effective policies are set in place, this situation could have devastating implications for human development. In this context, women and children can be very active participants in the defense of the environment and stop, or even reverse, the degradation of our natural resources.
At a worldwide level, there is a growing awareness of the need and importance of making women contribute to the identification of environmental problems, as well as in the planning of activities geared at the sustainable development of their communities.
Over the past 200 years, industrial processes have been responsible for increasing levels of pollution and for the degradation of air, water, and land. In addition to unrestricted exploitation of natural resources, unsound agricultural practices have had devastating effects on the environment and on people’s health and quality of life. Women and children have been particularly affected.
Women, especially those pregnant, are particularly susceptible to several environmental threats, particularly women living in rural or marginal suburban areas in developing countries. Until recently, women had few choices about the kind of lifestyle they wanted to lead and fewer opportunities to change unsatisfactory conditions and improve their families and their own health.
Because of their roles as home-managers, economic providers, and their role in reproduction, women are susceptible to health problems and hazards in several situations. The reproductive system of pregnant women is especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants. Every step in the reproductive process can be altered by toxic substances in the environment. These toxic substances may increase the risk of abortion, birth defects, fetal growth retardation, and peri-natal death.
Although for a long time women have been considered passive recipients of aid rather than active participants in development, their role is increasingly crucial both to the economies of developing countries and to the future of the environment. In that regard, as environmental educators and motivators for change, women are key agents in the processes leading to a more sustainable and healthy development of the planet.
Women are traditional protectors of the environment. A world survey on public attitudes on the environment sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program showed that women, when compared with men, are more likely to choose a lower standard of living with fewer health risks rather than a higher standard of living with more health risks.
In Nepal, Saraswoti Bhetwal has been able to survive as a farmer thanks to techniques learned at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), such as roof water harvesting, drip irrigation, composting and leveling terraces. In Latin America, indigenous women have become more active in the use of poverty reduction and sustainable development strategies.
In Russia, scientist Olga Speranskaya successfully worked with the NGO community in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA) and transformed them into a potent, participatory force working to identify and eliminate the Soviet legacy of toxic chemicals in the environment.
Throughout Latin America, women of all social classes are participating in environment protection projects. After Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras, women from the Afro-indigenous Garifuna community located in the Caribbean coast of Honduras created the Comité de Emergencia Garifuna (Emergency Committee Garifuna). The Committee organised seed banks for food security, planted fruit trees to limit erosion of coastal areas and helped relocate communities from high-risk areas. The organisation also incorporated reforestation and the cultivation of medicinal plants among its activities.
In addition, the increasing participation of women in think tanks and in environmental training activities is allowing them to educate both the public and policy makers about the critical link between women, the use of natural resources, and sustainable development.
In that regard, women have better access to local environmental issues and how to approach them than men. Women have often had a leadership role in reducing unnecessary use of resources, promoting an environmental ethic, and recycling resources to minimise waste.
There is growing evidence that women in several countries around the world are taking central roles in the grass-roots environmental movement. And there is increasing belief that development policies that do not involve women and men alike will not, in the long run, be successful.
As stated by Diane Reed, President of the Cree Society for Communications “Now the women are rising up. And when the women rise up from a nation, they are the strongest voice that can be heard and it’s a voice that cannot be silenced.”
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international medical consultant and the author of the Pan American Health Organization publications ”The Impact of the Environment on Children’s Health” and “Maternal Health.”