In honour of International Women’s Day we’ve put together a list of some of the ways in which gender intersects with environmental issues.
Just as any consideration of feminism is not complete without looking at the ways in which gender intersects with race, sexual orientation and class, it’s useful to take a gendered perspective when looking at environmentalism to see the ways in which these systems of power and domination cross over.
Of course, reversing climate change and protecting the environment is in everyone’s best interest, but looking at how other women's issues such as menstrual health intersect with environmentalism can help develop a more well-rounded and informed perspective on both.
1. Women are disproportionately affected by climate change. Natural disasters and resource shortages as a result of climate change hit poor communities first, and worst. Women make up an estimated 70% of those living below the poverty line globally, meaning that they are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.
2. Women are left out of decision making on environmental issues as they are still under-represented in governments, international agencies and business worldwide. This means that women's unique perspectives are not being heard when it comes to important issues like climate change. In the words of WEN’s Georgie Johnson, “until gender equality, and indeed total human equality, is achieved, global crises such as climate change will never be tackled with the full force of the human population. To change everything, we need everyone.”
3. Menstrual health. Disposable sanitary products are made from a blend of rayon, cotton and processing chemicals which have been bleached with chlorine. Rayon has been linked to toxic shock syndrome, while non-organic cotton is grown using a huge number of pesticides. The average menstruating woman in Western society disposes of 10 to 15,000 pads or tampons in her lifetime. These highly damaging products end up in landfill, or worse, find their way into marine environments. This wastage isn’t a necessary part of menstruation - menstrual cups, reusable pads, and biodegradable menstrual health products offer a brilliant alternative. However, reusable products don't have the huge marketing machine behind them that disposables do, so less women know about them!
4. Women and consumer culture. As a demographic, women are aggressively targeted by marketers persuading them that they need new/better/more products. Clever marketing encourages women (and increasingly men) to over-consume products that are detrimental to the environment. Women are constantly bombarded with unrealistic images of body and beauty which put further pressure on them to buy more make-up, clothes, and other products to try and keep up with our culture's unattainable standards.
5. Patriarchy and the environment. The current environmental climate is a predictable outcome of a patriarchal culture and its narratives of domination and superiority. Throughout history, women have been described in animal terms (bitch, cow, chicken…). Similarly, nature has been described in female and sexual terms; it is raped, mastered, conquered and controlled. Soil is fertile, or alternatively it is unproductive and barren. This use of language both feminises nature and naturalises women, connecting the two and reinforcing the domination of both. If we want to achieve an environmentally sustainable world then we need to challenge the existing power structures that devalue both nature and women, putting profit above environmental protection and human well-being.
To find out more about these challenges and to help tackle them, join Women's Environmental Network www.wen.org.uk/membership