ENVIRONMENT: WOMEN, ECOLOGY AND HEALTH
3:37 pm Aug 26, 1991
Copyright WOMEN'S FEATURE SERVICE, All Rights Reserved
ENVIRONMENT: WOMEN, ECOLOGY AND HEALTH
By Anita Anand
Summary: Women from Asia, the Pacific and USA held a lively
discussion on the interrelated issues of women, ecology and health
at a recent conference. The topics ranged widely, from the idea of
a parallel assault on nature and women through the form of
technology, to the McToxics campaign in the US, to AIDS in
Thailand, to a critique of mainstream environmental groups. Women
are at the forefront of the environmental movement and clearly have
a distinct approach to its concerns which they hope will be well
represented at UNCED '92. (1580 words)
Bangalore, July 26 (WFS) -- The United Nations conference on
Environment and Development (UNCED), slated to be held in Brazil
next June, will have to include a holistic gender perspective in
The event, which will bring together representatives of U.N.
member countries as well as thousands of non-governmental
organization representatives (NGOs), will be the first after the
historical U.N.-sponsored environment meeting held in Stockholm,
Sweden in 1972.
Since then the concern for planetary survival has moved as the
issues have surfaced. From desertification to acid rain, from
saving wildlife to deforestation. The current preoccupation, in
both the north and south, is pollution of the atmosphere most
acutely seen and felt in the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion.
While the U.N. agencies, national governments and NGOs have
responded to these ecological crises in various ways, another
response has been from women who are active in the day to day
struggle as a result of the eroding environment. Chemical
dumpsites, dying forest areas and AIDS have these women organizing,
coming together and formulating a theory from their daily struggle.
Links between women, ecology and health were the central
points of discussion at a recent seminar in this city in southern
India, in the state of Karnataka. Organized by the Daj Hammarskjold
Foundation based in Uppsala, Sweden and the Research Foundation for
Science Technology and Natural Resource Policy, Dehra Dun, India,
the seminar brought together women from Asia, the Pacific and USA
to share their experiences.
Ecology and health were discussed in the framework of what it
means to be a woman. Pupul Jayakar, social worker and expert on
Indian crafts, talked of the essential nature of women: The
discovery or revelation of sources from which creativity, nurturing
and conservation emerge.
Drawing parallels between the reproductive capacity of women
(seed in the womb) and her traditional role in planting (seed in
the earth) Jayakar warned that with the erosion of manual labor,
increasing mechanization has altered these roles of women. The
assault on nature has led to and will increase the assault on
Assault on women can traditionally be seen as discrimination
on the basis of sex, violence in the form of rape, incest and
mental abuse, and, in the modern context, in invasive reproductive
technologies. All these are symptoms of the `natural' giving way
to the `commercial,' manifesting itself in denial of the essential
and rational to bombardment of the irrational and hazardous.
Few communities are free from this. With incidents such as
those that occurred in Bhopal in India, Chernobyl in the Soviet
Union and Love Canal in the United States, the fall-out of the
irrational and hazardous has come home to haunt.
Manufacture of poisonous and carcinogenic gases and toxic
wastes have led to death, mutation and permanent damage to health.
Women's reproductive capacity is hit first. Spontaneous abortions,
miscarriages, genetically deformed births, changes in the menstrual
cycle, have been evidenced in all the three communities.
How has the use of chemical substances that endanger
environment and health become the rational? The response till now,
has been one of acceptable lifestyle and, therefore, acceptable
risk. Few North Americans can think of life without styrofoam, the
white substance that cups, plates and coolers are made of and it
even comes handy in packaging. Styrofoam when burned releases
toxics that require special incinerators.
It took a United States citizens group, the Citizens
Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, three years and three months
to get McDonald's (the largest fast food chain in the world) to
agree to end its use of styrofoam.
Describing the campaign, Penny Newman stressed, "the McToxics
campaign was a successful demonstration of how local people can
have an effect on the `big picture.' Children started demanding
that their schools stop using styrofoam. Cities passed ordinances
against styro-packaging. It was happening in our towns, by local
people, from all walks of life. It is local pressure that changed
our lifestyle and made it socially unacceptable to use styrofoam."
Styrofoam has to be disposed off in incinerators. Anne Kerepia
of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific and a staff member of the
Melenasian Council of Churches related how three years ago an
American corporation wanted to build an incinerator in the island.
The then prime minister was not too keen. The issue sparked a
debate. A public meeting was organized by various organizations
and the local U.S. embassy representative was invited.
At this meeting a local woman asked, "Tell me sir. In your
country do you build your toilet in someone else's house?"
Increasingly corporations place toxic wastes, incinerators and
other dangerous facilities in the more vulnerable sections of their
own and other countries.
Newman points out that a report done by Cerrell and Associates
for the state of California provides a blueprint for targeting
those communities that have limited power, many problems, and
economic deprivation. These communities are viewed as having little
political clout as they have become disenfranchised from the
The system responds by more technological control.
Environmentalist Vandana Shiva from India draws an analogy between
the regenerative creativity of women and nature, both of which have
been colonized by men and machines.
"Patriarchal worldviews in all their variation, from ancient
to modern, east to west, share one common assumption: the removal
of life from the earth, separation of the earth from the seed and
the association of the inert and empty earth with the passivity of
the female," says Shiva.
She continues to point out how creativity then became the
exclusive monopoly of men who were viewed as engaged in
`production' and women in `reproduction' or `procreation.' Nature
became an inert mother, a mere `resource.'
Control and the declining role of women are evidenced in two
major ways. In agrarian economies women were responsible for the
`seed' that was sown into the earth. They guarded its diversity and
ensured its regenerative power. This knowledge was passed on from
mother to daughter.
Today, with the advent of the HYV (high yielding variety) of
seeds, biodiversity has become a major issue, with the knowledge
and control in the hands of a few multinational corporations. Seeds
are controlled, grown in laboratories and distributed all over the
Similarly, knowledge of child birth was traditionally in the
hands of women, passed from mother to daughter. Babies were born
at home, with the aid of local remedies amid much folklore and
myth. Today, the medical profession closely monitors a woman's
pregnancy and the ultimate controlled act is the caesarean section.
And, like the seeds of the earth, that can be created, cross-
germinated and fertilized in laboratories under controlled
conditions, so can human seeds. For the infertile or sterile couple
or women who have problems carrying a pregnancy to term, modern
technology has some solutions. For women over the child bearing
age, science too has answers.
The new reproductive technologies (NRTs) and the HYVs of seeds
have made the impossible, possible. Commercial food production and
cash crops provide the possibility of feeding increasing
populations as well as ensuring food security. And more women and
couples have access to the possibility of having a child, should
they not be able to have one.
The fact that these technological advances have taken place
at the cost of the continuation of traditional wisdom and knowledge
is probably at the root of the ecological crisis, the loss of the
status of women and new health challenges such as AIDS. The
systematic non-recognition or `value' denied to any non-commercial
or economically non-viable thinking or product has come as a result
These issues come to the cross-road in the observations of Ann
Danaiya Usher of Thailand who proposes an unusual view of AIDS in
her country. Usher believes that the prolific spread of AIDS in
Thai society is directly connected to general ecological collapse
and the cultural fragmentation that has accompanied it.
"AIDS has become a physical manifestation of political
dispossession. The numbers marginalized by the expanding industrial
state (forest encroachers or sex workers) are viewed by the state
as the cause of the problem," says Usher and further states that
it is vital to trace how the processes of degradation in the human
body, the community and the ecosystem are linked politically and
metaphorically -- one reflecting and shedding light on the other.
In this vein, Newman also highlights the importance of looking
at the inter-connectedness of the issues by pointing out the
shortcomings of the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S.
"The U.S. environmental movement has become an elite group of
do-gooders that believe they know what is best for others: They
practice a particularly offensive mode of advocacy that is
patronizing at best and degrading at worst."
Newman's group is comprised of women and they work in a highly
decentralized manner, taking up local campaigns, designed by local
people. Newman refers to them as the "hysterical housewives" who
wear the title as a badge of their courage. She narrates what Cora
Tucker an African-American says:
"You're exactly right. I am hysterical. When it comes to
matters of life and death, especially mine and my family's, I get
Hysterical or not, women in the north and south are in the
forefront of social justice movements. And as Shiva summarizes,
"protection of life in this age of pervasive and invasive
technologies requires, above all, that we do not slip into viewing
technique and knowhow as a value and end in itself. Otherwise we
will foreclose our options to celebrate life in its spontaneity,
diversity and renewability." - Ends