“The liberation of the earth, the liberation of women, the liberation of all humanity is the next step of freedom we need to work for, and it’s the next step of peace that we need to create.” – Vandana Shiva.
What is women’s relationship with the environment? Is it distinct from that of men? The growing literature on ecofeminism in the west, especially in the United States, conceptualised the link between gender and environment primarily in ideological terms.
In this article, I will discuss women, especially those in poor rural households in India. On the one hand, they are the victims of environmental degradation and, on the other hand, they have been active agents in environmental protection movements. This article will focus on the issue in the Indian context, although the issue is relevant to other parts of the world as well.
It is important to talk about what ecofeminism says, especially when discussing the relationship between women and the environment. Ecofeminism is an activist and academic movement that sees a critical connection between the domination of nature and women’s exploitation. Ecofeminism grew during the 80s and 90s.
Vandana Shiva argues, “The marginalisation of women and the destruction of biodiversity go hand in hand.” She describes the commonality of “gendered” and “environmental” oppression and the specific location of women as vulnerable to monoculture capitalism.
Vandana Shiva believes that women have a special link to biodiversity and are the earth’s best custodian. Even Bina Agarwal says that the environment directly impacts women’s time, health, and income.
The gathering of food alone demands an elaborate knowledge of the nutritional and medical properties of plants, roots and trees. Among hill communities, women usually do the seed selection work and have the most detailed knowledge about the crop varieties.
This knowledge about nature and agriculture acquired by poor rural women in their everyday contact with the dependence on nature’s resources has a class and gender specificity. It is linked to the gendering of the division of labour.
The Chipko Movement: In the Garhwal Himalaya of India’s Uttarakhand, a series of social movements emerged in the late 2000s to contest hydroelectric dams on a tributary of the sacred river Ganga. Within these movements, men often took high profile leadership roles, but women formed the overwhelming base of meetings, assemblies and rallies. They hugged the trees to protect them from destruction.
Narmada Bachao Movement: Medha Patkar has been a central organiser and strategist of the movement that was organised to stop the construction of dams over the Narmada river. In 1985, she began mobilising massive matches and rallies against the project.
Women in India play a crucial role in the protection and conservation of the environment. They have brought a different perspective to the environmental debate because of their different experiences.
Poor women’s lives are not compartmentalised and they see the issues from a broad and holistic perspective. They understand that economics and the environment are compatible. Their experiences reveal that soil, water and vegetation is necessary for their day to day living and requires good management.