Are girls better at saving the planet than boys?
"We think ahead. We are practical. We are inherently more likely to think inter-generationally."
In a new Elders+Youngers debate, Mary Robinson argues that because women suffer disproportionately from poverty and social inequality, they are more likely to think about sustainability. What do you think – does gender matter? Join the debate!
I am being asked a provocative question, so my answer should rise to the occasion: yes, they are.
The reason for this is nothing to be celebrated. Women are simply worst affected by inequality, poverty and climate change. Six in ten of the world’s poorest inhabitants are women. The world over, women and girls’ responsibilities – notably in traditional roles as caregivers, water gatherers and food growers – make them most vulnerable to environmental hardships and economic downturn.
This is why I champion the concept of ‘climate justice’. The threats faced by our planet are grave, and it is the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised who will suffer most. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), women produce 90 per cent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa but own just 15 per cent of the land. In this age of droughts and flash-floods, women stand closer to the threats and, by the same token, have a greater sense of the urgent need for solutions.
Moreover, women are more attuned to the full meaning of sustainable development. We think ahead. We are practical. We are inherently more likely to think inter-generationally. Girls growing up may be thinking about the future promised to their children; they look ahead from the earliest age.
It frustrates me that ‘women’s empowerment’ tends to be tacked on to sustainable development as a kind of afterthought. To be clear: the empowerment of women is not optional. It is a fundamental condition of sustainable development. To quote what two of my fellow Elders recently wrote: “If we waste half the world's talent and potential, we simply cannot succeed.” I could not agree more.
Desmond Tutu often says the world would be a better place if women were running it. The research proves him right: governments where women play a greater role have been shown to be more likely to enact progressive social and environmental measures.
But the order of the day is not even about a lack of women in positions of leadership. It remains the continued struggle for basic empowerment.
My two questions to you:
- How can men help bring about gender equality?
- What you do think of the concept of climate justice? Is it helpful to the issues we are discussing on the way to Rio?
Dear Mary Robinson and all,
I would like to address this issue from a slightly different perspective: are societies based on matriarchal principles more successful in terms of justice, equality and sustainability than those based on patriarchy?
I must agree that they are – and women play a major role here, though there is certainly room for men as matriarchal principles can also be shared by us.
Analysing the history of several societies and cultures from the past, Riane Eisler supports this idea in her great book The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. She presents the role of the feminine in building societies based on equality and peace, and shows how patriarchal societies controlled mainly by men gave way to violence and dominance. Like Eisler, many other scholars have been working on gender-related theories and practices that show the importance of the feminine in sustainable development – from feminist social movements to the Grameen Bank and the people responsible for the Girl Effect campaign.
In Brazil life for women is hard, as it is in so many other countries: women receive up to 50 per cent less than men for the same jobs, suffer from health issues due to inadequate public health services, and are subjected to a level of violence that, research suggests, means a woman is being beaten every 15 seconds, somewhere in the country. As Mary Robinson said, gender equality and the empowerment of women is not optional, and cannot be delayed any more.
Regarding climate justice, no wonder the mobilisation towards it has grown so much during these last years: it is clear that climate change (as well as other environmental problems we face) bring along severe social issues. By connecting the dots and showing how protecting the environment also means protecting people and building a fairer world, we strengthen our efforts towards sustainable development, and make it clear that there is no alternative but to tackle issues such as this, with the urgency they require.
Negotiators have been saying that the proposals most likely to succeed in Rio+20 are the ones that tackle both social and environmental issues at the same time, and we should work hard to achieve that.
But it seems that gender issues are not as high in the Rio+20 agenda as they should be – and it would be great to hear from feminists (and from everyone) what their view on this particular issue is!
Dear Mary Robinson,
In response to your question, I also believe that girls are better at saving the planet than boys.
Gender matters to sustainable development!
As a young girl I dropped out of school for a term because my parent couldn’t pay my fees. My mother knew that if nothing was done to get me back to school, my life and my future would have been distorted as some point. She sold one of her prized belongings to get me back to school. She believed that if I get an education, a better future would await. She was thinking about the long term. She was thinking about sustainability.
Now when I look back at those days, I can say with a deep sense of gratitude to my mother that women do think about sustainability. This is not just an issue that affects one generation but transcends us, to children yet unborn. It is an issue that will define the future of a family, community and society.
My mother demonstrated to me that women get up every day with a deep sense of responsibility. They wholeheartedly think about the future of themselves and that of their family.
I want to grow up and be like my mother who understood the concept of sustainability (without knowing that the word exists). I want men, too, to understand that thinking about the future is the only way that humanity can exist sustainably,
In the past four years, I have seen young men and women passionate about sustainability and putting that passion to work. We ride bicycles to work. We care so much about where and how our food is made, and some of us to choose to be vegetarian. We hold our government accountable to the decisions they make on our behalf.
Men and women, no matter their generation must understand that the empowerment of women is critical to achieving sustainability. My father understands this now. He is happy about the person I have become and remains grateful to my mother for her amazing work in our lives.
Smaller family sizes allow more children to be educated, especially girls. This empowers them to live in climate change affected areas as they can better adapt to the impacts. Ensuring that women have access to comprehensive information and services on modern family planning and reproductive health helps them to think about the future, be practical and live in a more peaceful, just and sustainable world.
Like you said “the empowerment of women is not optional. It is a fundamental condition of sustainable development” I could not agree more. And I look forward to engaging with you again in Rio.
I am very grateful to the many men who have contributed their views! And clearly I am not the only one who reacts strongly to provocative questions. Pedro, you touch on a fundamental point: there is certainly room – there must be room – for the perspectives of men in any vision of gender equality. Men must help if all voices are to be heard. As the first woman to have been elected President in my country, I know that gender barriers can be overcome – but it takes work, support and dialogue.
As several of you point out, the existence of women-led (matriarchal) societies throughout the world, and throughout history, also shows that gender is a complex theme that is never clear-cut.
But then there are truths that are. Esther, what your mother did for you is a very real example of what we were all calling for in Rio. And that same story unfolds in countless places across continents: stories about women who, for want of full empowerment, give everything to empower their children as best they can. Today those women are up against environmental threats, economic hardships and institutional barriers. The solution to tackling all of these at once is to embrace sustainable development.
Rio is behind us now. I had hoped the consensus that comes out in all of your comments – that gender still needs to be addressed more thoroughly – would also come out forcefully in the outcomes of the Rio+20 summit. In the end, we did see some welcome commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment, but there was also a stark absence of language on reproductive rights, which is an unacceptable step backwards from previous agreements.
As the world gathered in Rio last week, the city was buzzing with hope and possibility. Although the agreed text was disappointing in its lack of ambition, I was greatly motivated by the energy and enthusiasm of the many women I met, from women leaders to grassroots women, all fully committed to the vision of a world where gender equality and women’s empowerment can become a reality. If we empower women, we stand a chance of succeeding at everything else.