Is the aspect of gender even relevant when it comes to creating a sustainable future worldwide? The UN Women (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) puts the topic in the focus in its World Survey on the Role of Women in Development 2014.
In fact, the connection between gender and sustainability issues has been considered in several international norms and agreements, including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development 1992, the Beijing Declaration 1995 and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development 2012.
The underlying causes of unsustainability and gender inequality are often similar and can be affiliated to the dominant economic models as, due to the World Survey, “these involve economic liberalization and the concentration of productive and financial activity geared to short-term profits; unrestrained material consumption; unparalleled levels of militarism; and the privatization of public goods and services, all at the expense of state regulation and redistribution” (United Nations 2014, p. 22). These factors are closely linked to economic growth. However, growth does not have a positive effect on the whole population. In fact, in the most rapidly growing countries a rising social inequality is observable. Women are affected by this trend to a large extent as economic growth often relies on many women working in low-paid jobs with poor working conditions or sustaining their family and community, namely doing subsistence and reproduction work. However, social inequality also threatens economic and social sustainability by causing societal tensions and conflicts.
During the last years, there has been increasing evidence on the influence of gender equality on sustainable development. A study conducted by Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo in the Indian States West Bengal and Rajasthan in the early 2000s is prompting that public resources are more likely to be invested in infrastructure for human development like drinking water, welfare programs and healthcare if there is a reservation of seats for women in municipal councils. However, while gender equality can have a positive effect on social and environmental sustainability, a mutual reciprocity between the two topics cannot be assumed. Therefore, the conclusion to respond to women as “sustainability saviours” needs to be handled with care: In fact, this perspective carries the risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes and the traditional role of women as carers of the family, the community and the environment. Chattopadhyay’s and Duflo’s study also shows that public resources are less likely to be invested in education centres in case of a female quota in the municipal council.
To ensure both gender equality and sustainability in the future, the World Survey addresses policy makers to deal with both topics synergistically. As many studies and experiences are prompting, women have shown knowledge and competencies when it comes to developing and implementing a sustainable environment. However, this should not result in adding one additional burden to women’s low or unpaid work. Policy measures and initiatives should be respecting “their knowledge, rights, capabilities and bodily integrity, and ensuring that roles are matched with rights, control over resources and decision-making power” (United Nations 2014, p. 24). Only when this directive is followed, the pursuit for gender equality as well as for sustainability has itself the potential to be successful and sustainable.
This blog post presents an introduction to the World Survey on the Role of Women in Development 2014.
United Nations. (2014). World Survey on the Role of Women in Development. Sales no. E.14.IV.6
Chattopadhyay, R., and E. Duflo (2004). Women as policy makers: evidence from a randomized policy experiment in India. Econometrica, vol. 72, No. 5, pp. 1409-1443.