Women and Environment: Views from the ICA Women's Committee

   This document has been made available in electronic format
           by the International Co-operative Alliance.

                  ICA Women's Committee
                       April 1995

Women are traditionally the homemakers and carers of society. As
such they have a natural desire to conserve, protect and nurture.
For them, the environment in which they live, work and raise
their families is of paramount concern.

Women have often been at the forefront of developing good
practice, by campaigning on environmental issues, monitoring
products and recycling packaging. They have not only been
expressing their concerns, but they have also been doing
something about it. What is more, because of their limited
resources, women have a more indirect effect on the protection
of the environment. To economise they use less fuel, they are
less able to buy expensive electrical goods and they have
limited, if any, access to cars.

Nevertheless they are denied a direct influence on policies that
could affect their environment - both local and global - by not
being made party to the decision making process.

Destructive forces undermine the very existance of animals,
including mankind, as well as plants, mainly by pollution of the
air and water which are vital for survival.

In the western world, safe, clean water has often been taken for
granted, but without adequate protection, water soon becomes
contaminated by nitrates, phosphates and organochlorines used in
fertilisers and pesticides. These chemicals are used to increase
crop yield, but their production and use are detrimental to

Water is also contaminated by toxins and chemicals in the air.
Rain absorbs these toxins, deposits them into the rivers and
streams, which fill the wells and reservoirs, that are used to
irrigate the land, where the crops are grown to feed the people.
This cycle results in the continuing contamination and pollution
of every inch of the globe.

One of the major factors in improving life-expectancy in the
developing world (The South) has been the provision of water. The
struggle for safe, clean water has been, and is increasingly so,
women's daily struggle. It is the women who draw the water from
the well and use it to prepare food for their families. In many
countries, to a great extent, it is the women who grow the crops
and tend the livestock.

The destruction of the rain-forest and the increase in
industrialisation have had an adverse effect on the air we all
breathe. Improved standards of living are often equated to the
possession of consumer desirables such as cars and electrical

The perpetuation of the 'throwaway' mentality encourages the
production of cheaper goods from made-man materials, many of
which are made from hazardous processes. But it is not only the
production that causes danger from pollution, using many of the
products also has an adverse effect. Any fuel, whether gas,
electricity or petrol produces carbon dioxide into the air. Other
pollutants such as lead and nitrous oxide lead to brain damage
and respiratory problems, endangering pregnant women, fetuses and
children most.

Industrial and nuclear waste products not only affect the local
area, but populations hundreds of miles away. Townships develop
near industrial sites even though the inhabitants may be exposed
to fumes and waste that will harm them and future generations.

Manufacturing processes can cause polluton of the land, the
atmosphere and water sources around poorly managed sites. Women
are used as cheap labour in factories where they are expose to
hazardous processes and chemicals. As a major part of the
workforce in such places they are being subjected to working in
a dangerous environment, exposed to risky materials and tools.
Working with hazardous chemicals and dangerous waste, not only
puts them at risk, but disadvantages their unborn children.

Bad practice has led to disasters such as those in Bhopal in
India and Chernobyl in Russia. Such disasters have devastating
effects - both at the time and for generations to come. 

As consumers women can exercise, to some extent, choice over what
they buy. Their limited finances may affect that choice, but they
are more likely to be conscious of unneccessary additives and
excessive packaging. However, women are often forced to exploit
local resources in order to eke out a living overworking a small
plot of land. What is more, using trees to fuel open fires, or
the same water source for washing and drinking, present health
hazards as well as damaging the environment. The unnecessary use
of pesticides can have advers effects on food production. It is
not always a good thing to move away from traditional methods.

Paradoxically, women have a more indirect effect on the
protection of the environment. Limited resources may lead to more
economical use of fuel for cooking, heating and lighting, and
because their earnings are lower than those of men, they are less
likely to have their own cars and will rely more heavily on
public transport.

Although more insiduous forms of pollution went undetected for
many years, we are now aware that the 'greenhouse' effect
threatens all our lives. The depletion of the ozone layer
increases the risk of skin-cancers from ultra violet rays. As
women in many countries do most of the agricultural work, they
are in the greatest danger. 

Climate changes and flooding brought about by the melting of the
ice-caps bring dangers that we are largely un-prepared for. 

There is a need for information, education and empowerment in
order to enable women to bring their perspective on environmental
protection to the fore. Women gain knowledge and experience both
in their home and working environment, yet this double
contribution to society often denies them the opportunity to
influence the decision-making process. If women are hindered by
cultural constraints and unable by traditional organisation to
participate directly in meetings where decisions are made, their
views are rarely canvassed.

It is essential, not only to build on traditional knowledge, but
also to ensure that women have the opportunity to use that
knowledge to influence decisions at all levels - whether local,
regional or global.


     1) to promote 'environmentally friendly' practices in
     industry, manufacturing, and consumerism, by acknowledging
     that differing perspectives of 'profit' exist and that
     social wellbeing is as relevant to successful policies as
     economic growth

     2) to encourage the development of safe, affordable and
     energy efficient public transport

     3) to change the process of decision making, at all levels,
     in order to enable women to play an active role in pursuing
     sustainable development.


     1) Establish effective policies to protect the environment
     by controlling all forms of pollution, including noise.
     These policies should be based on the experiences of both
     women and men, and should be pursued at all levels.

     2) Ensure industrial processes do not use harmful chemicals
     or produce hazardous waste, and that economic profit is not
     allowed to overide social factors such as health and

     3) Encourage life-styles which save energy and natural

     4) Promote 'environmently friendly' products that offer
     real choice to the consumer both in cost and availibility.

     5) Discourage unnecessary packaging and provide accessible
     recycling facilities.

     6) Develop educational programmes which include a gender
     perspective and produce information which addresses women's

     7) Bring about the necessary changes in the decision and
     policy making process to enable women to play an active
     role in that process.