Can Feminism Save Forests

Introduction

Environmental degradation mitigation measures have been a long-standing topic of discussion in international and national forums. Even though the discussions comprise of possible solutions to mitigate environmental degradation and to undertake sustainable development measures, the erroneous assumption that lies behind these dialogues is that the environment issue affects every community equally, when rather, environmental degradation has been noted to have inconsistent effects on different echelons of society. The reasons causing the inconsistent impact are various, dependence on natural resources, relative resource endowments, social and political scenarios, etc.

If the discussion is focused on deforestation and the effects thereof, given the proximity, the worst affected is the rural population, more particularly, rural women. The dependency of the rural population living near forests is not only for sustenance but also economic gains, and due to the deteriorating quality and quantity of the natural resources, the rural men tend to migrate to urban areas in search of more lucrative opportunities, leaving the women behind.

Typically, in Indian households, women hold the responsibility of tending to the needs of the family and other domestic chores. Now, in the absence of men, the rural women, in addition to their womanly duties, also have to provide monetary support as they become an additional source of income and sustenance for the family. On top of being overburdened, women’s work goes unacknowledged and they are often overlooked as stakeholders during the formation of environmental policies. Besides their vulnerabilities being overlooked, their knowledge and experience with nature is also an untapped resource to save the forests and the environment. Unfortunately, the cultural and social set up in India is not completely conducive for development of the female gender, which might be a colossal requirement to aid the planet saving efforts.

Feminisation of the workforce

In an economic survey of 2017-2018, it was found that due to increase in migration of men from rural to urban areas, there has been “feminisation” of the agricultural sector.[1] Nevertheless, females in rural areas are only de facto owners after the men of the household leave and must undertake agricultural activities. In fact, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted by the Central Government for the year 2017-2018, 73.2% women are engaged in agricultural activities, whereas merely 12.8% are landholders. Till the 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act[2], a daughter was not even a coparcenary to the ancestral property.[3]

Women, earlier, were expected only to carry out tasks that do not require a lot of skill or physical labour, such as weeding, sowing, harvesting, etc.[4] But lately, women have started to perform hard physical labour as well, like ploughing and spade work, without proper remuneration or recognition for the same. In fact, in activities like processing and storage, the contribution of men is almost negligible. Unfortunately, the catch remains that such labour is still covered under the umbrella of “moral obligations” towards the family that is expected in a patriarchal household and is disposed of as same with no economic gains. This structured devaluation of women’s contribution, and their knowledge about the natural resources and forests, validates and furthers men’s dominance in forest governance.[5]

The duties of rural women include an endless number of responsibilities such as providing nutrition, taking care of the family, fetching water, and indulging in subsistence farming, etc. Deforestation not only has augmented the burden by imposing agricultural duties but, due to unobtainability, has also made it increasingly difficult to collect resources for sustenance. In a study it was noted that women in villages with degraded forests spent more time in forest activities than women in villages with better quality forests.[6] The shrinkage of ground water level, and the salinisation of freshwater bodies, lack of fuelwood, food results in longer travels in search of resources. Therefore, in heavily deforested areas, the women’s work burden significantly increases, consequently, adversely impacting their health, education, as well as other basic human rights.

Recognition of women’s contribution  

The inculcation of “gender” in the axis of planning and development is still very recent and has been marked by several national and international policies aiming to achieve the rhetoric of “women empowerment”. The tryst for this “empowerment” seems to be largely misdirected and often misused for economic and political gains.

The Indian Government has over the years developed various schemes with the object of women development, but the policy approach of the Government seems to be based on voluntarism. The issue of their unrecognised work has failed to be appropriately remedied. Features of the nature of neglect of women’s work can be gleaned from an examination of the FiveYear Plans (FYPs) India developed under which policies and schemes are made to achieve specified goals over a period of 5 years.

The first few FYPs focused on the role of voluntary organisations to ensure women sustenance, even the implementation of programmes was left on the voluntary organisations as the Government dusted their hands of any responsibility. A closer look at the activities undertaken by women will reveal that the nature of a rural woman’s work does not let her fit neatly into either being a beneficiary of the various welfare schemes or being an active contributor to nation building.

The Sixth FYP for the first time included a chapter for women development and mentioned, just in passing, the use of technology for development of women. Role of women in productive work was also acknowledged for the first time, but was termed as “helping their men folk”, basically women’s agricultural labour was ignored, and only industrial labour was recognised.

The Tenth FYP for the very first time included a mention on women in agriculture and meeting the needs of poor female farmers, but again left out agricultural labourers from its ambit. The plan again focused on women self-help groups for self-employment. The Eleventh and Twelfth FYPs once again shifted the onus of women development on voluntary organisations. It mentioned women’s agricultural capacities as a target by encouraging women farmers to form groups, again ignoring their contribution.

There are innumerable policies and schemes initiated with the aim of women development but what can be gleaned from them is the policymakers’ oblivious attitude towards acknowledging women’s contribution to the productive work. The financial assistance provided is usually availed by the men of the families and no real assistance is provided to the women as they own no assets and have no say in any of the decision-making. Additionally, the policymakers usually cherry-pick the issues for women development effectively doing nothing to uplift the social status of the women from the current patriarchal structure. It is remarkable how conveniently the policymakers have categorised rural poor women simply as victims, allocated “financial assistance”, shifted the majority work on social work organisations and labelled it women empowerment. This seems like a plot to earn goodwill by doing bare minimum while further consolidating the role of poor rural women as mere “domestic workers”. Women specific laws are needed whereby their strengths and knowledge may be recognised and acknowledged; formal recognition of women’s work and offering them income, including them in community decision-making and positions of power will enhance their voice in the household decisions and further will give them confidence to fight for their rights.

Success stories have emerged as women and the local village communities undertook the mission of the forest conservation into their own hands. Movements such as Chipko and Appiko gathered shape forcing the Government to rethink its policies. Consequently, the policymakers introduced schemes mandating inclusion of locals and minorities in the cause of forest conservation. The National Forest Policy of 1990, for the first time, acknowledged the necessity of including women members in forestry schemes by mandating 40% representation of women in general body and 50% in executive body of the local forestry institutions like the Joint Forest Management Committee. Later in 2002, the Biodiversity Authority of India, reframing the local Biodiversity Management Committee structure, mandated the reservation of one-third of its members as women. This understanding of the role of women in the local-level conservation measures and implementation of related rules has aided in improving the management of forest in rural regions of the country.

However, these policies and schemes are far from being successful at attaining the gender sensitivity required in environmental policy-making. Traditional village communities and councils systematically exclude women from partaking in such decision-making activities and attending meetings. The policymakers should concede the complex interdependency of women empowerment and sustainable development. Instead of just being treated as victims they should be made agents of change by being appointed in positions of authority.

Conclusion

“It is assumed that all members of a poor household are poor, and further that they are all equally poor.”[7]

In light of the ongoing environmental concern, vulnerabilities of women have been recognised and has added another leg to the feminism movement.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, erupted a new cause called “ecofeminism” – as termed by Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974. The argument offered by ecofeminists is that the enemy of environment degradation and women’s oppression is the same, that is, patriarchy. Some of the recent works by Susan Griffin, Ynestra King, Karen Warren, Ariel Salleh[8] and others have proclaimed ecology to be solely a feminist issue.

The view feminists hold in relation to the global problem of ecology seems to be a very narrow-minded approach. They have linked the exploitation of nature exclusively with power-hungry men. Although this view may be one of the causes of ecological problems, it certainly does not reflect the whole issue, which is more complicated. Ecofeminists have brazenly believed that exploitation of nature cannot end without ending human oppression, and vice versa.[9] The parallel drawn between female oppression and nature exploitation is almost egoistic in approach. The two issues, albeit interlinked, cannot be merged into one.

The ecofeminists vaunt the relationship between women and nature through the popularisation of ancient rituals centred on the Mother Goddess and the female reproductive system. This claim is irrational in the sense that a specific gender or species cannot be said to be closer to nature than other gender or species.

Another flaw in the ecofeminist concept is that they fail to categorise women from different class, race, economic status, and so on, a view held by various feminist scholars such as Cecile Jackson[10], Meera Nanda[11] and Bina Agarwal[12].  Bina Agarwal, in her paper “The Gender and Environment Debate”[13], has argued ecofeminist’s claim of women’s deeper connect with nature by pointing out the failure of proving this linkage through proper evidence or a strong argument. The ecofeminists even contradict themselves when they say that the gender hierarchical system is a social construct when the concepts of nature, gender, culture, and traditions are themselves merely social constructs. Ecofeminism fails to acknowledge gender division of labour and distribution of opportunity, which too is more of a social construct. The assumption that men do not and cannot possess an ethical and compassionate attitude towards nature is grossly unjustified and creates a deeper rift between the genders.

According to Bina Agarwal, the increasing exploitation of natural resources, privatisation of lands by the State and private individuals are primary reasons for increase in class-gender effect of environmental degradation. Bina Agarwal also criticises the ecofeminists on the point that they misjudge the level of power women possess. Women are not a part of the decision-making process, even if the law stipulates involvement of women, it is just a formality and is of no consequence. In fact, a point even Professor Agarwal misses, rural and poor women do not care about oppression as a priority as they have a myriad of problems to occupy their minds; they are not concerned with being “oppressed” as much as they are concerned about surviving. More unfortunately, the distorted thought pattern about women has been accepted as virtuous and appropriate even by the women concerned. Therefore, making better laws and policies is only half the battle. There needs to be awareness, education, and a structural change in society in order to eradicate the decades of mental brainwashing leading them to believe and accept their social roles.

National or international organisations should discuss stakeholders, but it needs to be done on a grassroot level with structural change in people’s mindset. Even among women there needs to be classification between classes, ethnicity, etc. Simply put, a woman working in the city with a sufficient pay may not be affected by environmental degradation in the same way as poor rural women. Women as a resource is untapped; working in proximity with nature and the indigenous flora and fauna, the knowledge they gain is precious and should be utilised in while making decisions for different regions.

The situation is not hopeless yet. Time and again women have risen to the need of the hour and concentrated their efforts in fighting the wanton exploitation and oppression. Granted, the efforts have been scattered and not enough to bring about a revolution, but it is a glimmer of hope.


* Advocate. Currently working as a legal consultant in the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Author can be reached at medhagarg.ras@gmail.com.

[1]Move Over “Sons of the Soil”: Why You Need to Know the Female Farmers that are Revolutionising Agriculture in India (Oxfamindia.org, 2018) <https://www.oxfamindia.org/women-empowerment-india-farmers>.

[2]Hindu Succession Act, 1956.

[3]Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005.

[4]Baruah Alpana, Women Workers in Agriculture: A Study in Morigaon District of Assam (PhD Thesis, Gauhati University 2018).

[5]Purabi Bose, et al., Women’s Rights to Land and Communal Forest Tenure: A Way Forward for Research and Policy Agenda in Latin America, Women’s Studies International Forum, (2017) 65 pp. 53-59.

[6]Deepak K. Mishra and Aparimita Mishra, Deforestation and Women’s Work Burden in the Eastern Himalayas, India: Insights from a Field Survey,  Gender, Technology and Development, (2012) Vol. 16.

[7]Bina Agarwal, Rural Women, Poverty and Natural Resources: Sustenance, Sustainability and Struggle for Change, (1989) 24, Economic and Political Weekly.

[8]Ariel Salleh, ‘Stirrings of a New Renaissance’ (1989) 38, Island Magazine, 26-31.

[9]Ariel Salleh, ‘Stirrings of a New Renaissance’ (1989) 38, Island Magazine, 26-31.

[10]Cecile Jackson, Women/Nature or Gender/History? A Critique of Ecofeminist Development, The Journal of Peasant Studies, (1993) 20, Issue 3, 384-419.

[11]Meera Nanda, Is Modern Science a Western Patriarchal Myth? A Critique of the Populist Orthodoxy, South Asia Bulletin, (1991) 11, Issues 1 and 2, 32-61.

[12]Bina Agarwal, The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India, Feminist Studies Inc., (1992) 18, 119-158.

[13]Bina Agarwal, The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India, Feminist Studies Inc., (1992) 18, 119-158.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.