Gender Equality and Sustainable Development- what’s the connection?

By: Josephine Chu

A few weekends ago, I attended the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program Fellowship training in Washington, DC.  I was joined by several other youth from across the country who were interested in making the connection between empowering women and sustainable development.  I applied for this fellowship as I have become increasingly interested in learning more about gender issues due to the Gender Economics class at American University that I am taking this semester.  Through this class, I have been learning more about the importance of incorporating gender when developing macroeconomic policies.  Many of our initial readings for the class discussed how much of the work that women do such as cooking, giving birth to and taking care of children, and other household tasks are not accounted for in the formal economy or in the country’s GDP.  Yet, women’s role in the care or reproductive sector, while often unacknowledged in formal economic policies, is crucial to the continued development of a country.  For without women to give birth and take care of children, there would no future generation and no future economy to talk about.

the other Sierra Club fellows and I at the training, jumping up to save the world 😉

Sierra Club fellows

Despite women’s importance in the economy, the impact of economic policies on women are rarely given special consideration when country leaders develop economic policies.  As a result, these policies often have a disproportional impact on women.  For example, policies to increase trade between countries may seem beneficial for both of the countries’ economic growth.  However, in countries where human labor is their main resource, this means that women are increasingly employed to work in the factories as they are considered a source of cheap labor.  As the women may not have many other options, the factory bosses can pay them low wages and force them to work long hours without breaks.  (This is greatly simplifying the situation as each country is different, but I am trying to be brief.)  Additionally, the women often still have to take care of children and perform other household tasks, placing a huge strain on their welfare.

Even in the United States, there is a still significant gap in wages between men and women.  According to a recent study published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that women only earn 77% of what men earned annually.

So why is there still so much gender inequality and what does that mean for sustainable development? Well, the first question is difficult to answer as there are so many factors, but developing economic policies that are gender-aware and empowering women to pursue livelihoods of their choosing is crucial.  In terms of sustainable development, if women do not have access to education, health care, and economic opportunity, it means that women do not have control to make the decisions that they want.

In one of the articles that I read for my Gender Economics class, the author cites another author who states, “perhaps white males see less risk in the world because they create, manage, control, and benefit from many of the major technological activities.  Perhaps white women and non-white women and men see the world as more dangerous because in many ways, they are more vulnerable, because they benefit less from many of its technologies and institutions, and because they have less power and control over what happens in their communities and their lives” (Bernasek 2000). 

While the author is referring specifically to why women are more conservative than men when it comes to investing their money, I believe this quote could be applied to a variety of other issues that affect women’s daily lives.

This may mean that may have more children than they want because they do not have access to family planning services that they need.  This may also mean that girls may not attend school when they are menstruating because there are no toilets at the school.  This may mean women do not ask for raises in their jobs or do not even plan to advance to the next level (thus, Sheryl Sandberg’s argument that women need to Lean In).

So going back to the Sierra Club Global Population and Environment Program fellowship training that I mentioned at the beginning of my post,  I was very excited when I found out about this opportunity as I wanted to learn how to better articulate these connections between women’s empowerment and environmental issues and how I could implement projects to empower women to create a more sustainable world. 

Before attending the training, I was somewhat nervous myself about the fellowship’s focus on population growth as I was afraid that the program would attempt to cite population growth as the sole cause of environmental degradation and climate change, which I was very wary of since that could quickly turn into a blame game on developing countries, where population growth is highest.  (Yet developed countries still have the highest carbon emissions per capita.) However, after participating in the day’s workshops, I gained a better understanding of the extent of family planning services needed (222 million women in developing countries desire family planning services, but cannot access it) and how that negatively impacts women’s well-being as they do not have the resources to care for the children, placing a great strain on themselves and their environment.  I was also happy to learn that the organizations that work on population, health, and environment projects, such as Conservation International, place top priority on voluntary and informed consent for the women.

Here is a short video about a project in Tanzania that makes the linkages between conservation and health through peer education of interventions such as clean cookstoves, sustainable seaweed farming, and reproductive health services.  (I actually watched this video two days after the Sierra Club training at American University’s School of International Service’s Spring Symposium, gender and development issues are everywhere!)

If you are in DC and interested in learning more about these linkages, be sure to check out  this event on April 10th at 4:30pm at the Sierra Club office at 50 F St NW that the Sierra Club, Women’s Voices for the Earth, and Reproductive Health Technologies Project are jointly hosting! You can RSVP here.  This event will discuss the intersection between reproductive and environmental health and justice and toxic chemicals.

Sex, Synthetics, and Sustainability

Especially with climate change, empowering women will be crucial to ensure that we can build communities that can adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As a Chinese-American, I am particularly interested in learning about and working on environmental issues in China and how the United States and China, as the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, can better collaborate to address climate change (and if you are interested in how population issues are currently playing out in China, this is a good article, For Many in China, the One Child Policy is Already Irrelevant).

Thus, I was so excited when I found out about US-China Greener Consumption Forum hosted by the International Fund for China’s Environment, Big Green Purse, and Green China Consumption Alliance. This was a day-long conference that focused on the role women can play in both the United States and China to transform each of their countries’ respective consumption habits through the “power of their purse” to create a more livable and sustainable world.  As someone who helped to co-found a business, Zenful Bites, to provide holistic eco-catering options and conscious food education programming for youth to cultivate a sustainable food system in the Washington, DC metro area, I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet female entrepreneurs who are trying to do the same in China.  I am also writing my final paper for my Gender Economics class on female entrepreneurship in China so this was just exciting all around.  (And of course, gave me an opportunity to practice my Mandarin as half of the workshops were in Chinese…good thing there were headsets for translation!)

However, to go back to the Summer of Solutions program that I am helping to plan, Jeremiah, the other DC program leader, and I are in the process of creating a food justice curriculum for the youth and we plan to make one of the themes gender equality and women’s empowerment.  The Sierra Club fellowship provides me with funding to implement projects that make the linkages between gender equality and sustainable development so we plan to use that funding to host an event this summer around these issues.  So stay tuned for further details on that!

1Author: Josephine Chu is a program leader with Cultivating Intergenerational Leaders, the Summer of Solutions program based in Washington, D.C.

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