Even to casual observers it was obvious that those who marched in protest this past weekend on Trump’s “100th Day” were often the same as those who marched on his very first day in office back in January in defense of women’s rights. Indeed, the recent Climate Marches remind us not only of the importance of environmental policy but of the profound intersectionality of progressive causes generally. Although media coverage tends to treat activist events as discrete areas of protest, those in the know–and they are legion–are well aware that promoting gender equality and protecting the environment go hand-in-hand, with each reinforcing the other.
Beyond a surficial overlap, however, such mutually-aligned advocacy exposes a vital truth that many in both movements have long known: empowering women is crucial to a range of environmental concerns, including climate change. After all, women are the workers, agricultural laborers, and farmers who toil under the weight of current environmental policies… and they are the ones most immediately affected by both quick-acting and slow-acting environmental disasters. In fact, this is why I and many others have long maintained that there’s a profound synergy when it comes to gender equality, conservation, and agricultural production.
Yet women are also the ones with limited power to make decisions at the level of community or national policy.
Women’s rights and environmental protection intersect not simply theoretically, but in immanently practical terms. For example, low and middle income women are, according to the UN, those “more often responsible for water collection.” Of course water is a critical global resource. And, in light of the increasing droughts that are arising because of global warming, a critical indicator of planetary health. If we can devise methods by which water collection is more sustainable yet easier for women, the benefits to planet, women, and communities are clear. Similarly, women are typically charged not only with meal preparation, but also with gathering the necessary fuel, which too often is a biomass resource that contributes, despite its sustainability, to climate change. Alternative and clean energy cooking sources would be preferable, but typically women do not have the political might to advocate for such policy changes or the economic power to invest in change.
And even if women do manage to make the time to address environmental concerns, there is an automatic opportunity cost. As, again, the UN points out, “women are more often charged with collecting water, cleaning and cooking and also with taking care of the sick, drastically limiting their time spent on paid work and leisure and, in the case of girls, reducing the time for educational pursuits.” In short, women’s ability to be a positive force for environmental protection and climate advocacy is undermined by the limitations inherent in their assigned societal roles.
Moreover, women’s powerless reinforces a vicious circle. While women are forced to travel farther and farther afield for water as a result of climate change, they are left with even fewer personal resources in terms of time and energy to help find solutions that would mitigate these conditions.
To be sure, women are more than motivated to be “part of the solution” if they have the opportunity to do so. It is well documented that women are more engaged in conservation and environmental activism than men. To cite but a single example, women usually participate in recycling programs more than men. Is this because they simply care more, or are in a better position to implement recycling, or both? The answer might be merely academic but it is clear that enhancing women’s agency in terms of both practice and policy-making naturally generates positive outcomes for the environment.
The grand solution is to empower women–it is our moral and political right. It also has the benefit of “saving the planet.” We should be able to act collectively upon the alignment of these two related deeply related issues. Environmentalist should address gender inequality; women’s rights advocates should incorporate environmental concerns. We need to work collaboratively across these issues not just because it makes sense strategically, but because these causes are related at the deepest levels. Now is the time to harness our collective forces for women’s empowerment and the planet.