Women, Environment and Development

Submitted by admin on 30. May 2011 - 23:36
Salazar, Melinda

Women, Environment and Development

Melinda Salazar

Presented at the 4th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
organized jointly with the Social and Economic Development Seminar for the Americas
12-14 December 2000, Orlando, Florida, USA

[This paper is as presented at the Conference, and has not been subject to editorial review by the IEF]


This paper brings attention to the link between the equality of women and men and the building of a sustainable civilization by first, providing a context for Women, Environment and Development (WED) approaches to development, and secondly, to Baha'i perspectives on women, gender and environment. I address the failure of gender analysis to successfully include women and girls in policy planning, and I raise questions about the application of spiritual based indicators as a gender analysis tool by which Baha'i SED projects can assess development progress.

Workshop Overview

In the workshop presentation, I introduce preliminary findings from selected narrative interviews with rural Quechua women living in the central altiplano region of Bolivia in a multi-media format. These interviews illustrate why the Baha'i Writings emphasize the importance of women's participation in community decision-making processes. We will engage in a participatory process using the traditional music from the Quechua region in Bolivia to produce a dance that demonstrates the importance of partnership for environmental stewardship. Marty Quinn will share a relevant piece of music composed especially for this workshop based on the Baha'i Writings.

Personal Statement

My interest in presenting this workshop stems from my research in Bolivia where I am conducting an implementation evaluation of the UNIFEM/BIC "Traditional Media as a Change Agent," a gender development project. I planned to talk with the people most influenced by the intervention, the Quechua women, girls and men participants. This research, described in the second section of this paper, is in its earliest stages. I have just completed data collection and have done little analysis of the data at this time. I am not presenting conclusive, nor complete findings in this workshop. While in Bolivia, I offered service in the form of technical development deepening as a gift of my appreciation to the beautiful and generous people I met. I used activities from the Developing Patterns of Community Life: A Guide to Consultation published by the Mottahedeh Development Service and activities that I've adapted over the years to facilitate goal setting and strategic planning. Although my doctoral work is within the context of an environmental sustainability program, my focus had been primarily on feminist theory and gender development planning. I left the science for the ecologists. However, my experiences with, and interviews of these deeply spiritual indigenous Baha'i believers led me to re-examining -- in UN language -- the inextricable link between women, the environment and development, and led me to remembering -- from a Baha'i perspective -- women's full participation as a criterion for building sustainable communities.

The link may be obvious to many students of development and seekers of Baha'u'llah's teachings. I/we do much talking about these issues. But, the actual experience of listening to the women speak gems of wisdom from the depths of their soul told against the backdrop of social and cultural norms that inhibit her confidence and her participation, not only enlightened me, but profoundly transformed me. I realized, once again, why I am a traveler, a "follower of the Light." The obvious is complex, and not until we can bring into practice what we know in words can we move on to humanity's next critical social issue. In the words of Noeleen Heyzer, the executive director of UNIFEM, "We have learned, over and over again, that the cost of exclusion is too high." We cannot separate women, gender, environment and development in policy planning and in on-the-ground activities.

The fundamental assumptions I bring to this discussion on women, gender and environment in a development context are not new to us. I merely re-emphasize:

· Development is an organic process in which "the spiritual is expressed and carried out in the material" (Baha'i Writings),
· The equality of women and men is a criterion for building sustainable communities,
· Attitudes and behaviors towards gender roles inhibit women's full participation,
· Progress towards gender equity must be measured in spiritual terms.

To begin, I revisit women and development within the 1990s context and provide a brief historical overview.

What is the Women and Environment approach to development?

Trends in development research and practice reflect the changes of "women in development." The terms "WID" (women in development), "WAD" (women and development), "GAD" (gender and development), and "WED" (women, environment, [sustainable] development) represent differing views of the relationship between women, gender and development in research, policymaking, and NGO practice since the mid-1960s. Each term is associated with a specific set of assumptions and values leading to the formulation of strategies for the participation of women in the development process. The research methodologies used by traditional development agencies of each approach differ in theory and practice. A brief overview of these approaches helps to locate Baha'i approaches to SED and to contextualize Baha'i spiritual teachings in relation to gender and sustainability issues.

The WED approach grew out of the mid-1970s "oil crisis" event and the literature about the earth's limited natural resources. The raised awareness of environmental concerns to a global scale catapulted development planners to looking for more systematic solutions to global commons issues.

The WED movement emerged as a theme in the context of this debate with planners looking to strategies for people in the South who would be depending upon wood fuel as their major energy source. Lessons learned from development planner's failed forestry and energy projects attracted global attention as women's spontaneous grassroots social movements in India led to the widely-known Chipko Movement. The protest against the disruption of the ecological balance from deforestation by village women protecting their forests brought focus to how rural women are the victims global economic problems. The increased environmental degradation of the late 1970s and the realization of the feminization of poverty in early 1980s led to deeper connections between the relationship of gender, development, and the environment. The inclusion of women's voices and her participation in decision-making became a UNEP policy goal to move nations from the unsustainable to sustainable path.1 From the late 1980s, WED "professionals" and "experts" from both the North and the South were charged with bringing women's role to promoting sustainable development.

Although WED approaches predominantly fill large spaces in development dialogue, the movement today seeks to mend it's previously polarized past within feminist research and development circles. WED genealogy splits in two different strands with degrees of difference. On the one hand, Northern and Southern women activists and researchers follow either a biological determinist perspective or a social constructivist view, and the critique of material (seen as Western) bias in values, progress, prosperity and well-being, on the other. In question is not only whether women occupy a "special" relationship with nature, but the notion and practice of development itself. These questions are not merely academic, they lead to policy planning decisions in terms of who funds research, which projects are funded, and what values are reproduced in the development process.

What is Gender and Development (GAD)?

While a complete analysis of gender is outside the scope of this paper, for our purposes the category "gender" can be loosely defined as a set of beliefs about the psychological makeup of women and men. Social roles are constructed based on these beliefs. Male roles are assigned higher importance than female roles, and therefore, are given greater status.

Stereotypes are used to justify traditional gender roles, division of labor, and men's higher social and economic status. The gender argument is circular -- the relationship between gender roles and gender stereotypes is reciprocal and self-maintaining.

GAD sets out to transform these unequal gender roles and relations and seeks to redistribute power inequities. Also known as the empowerment approach, GAD emphasizes income-generating activities and grassroots initiatives to improve women's status and increase her self-reliance and strength. In practice, the GAD approach is seen as laden with Western feminist values which raises concerns for some funding agencies, and the approach is critiqued as sounding too academic.

What are gender approaches to environment?

The Earth Charter Initiative, affirms "gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity" (Earth Charter; Section 3, Item 11). Agenda 21 recommends an increase of "the proportion of women involved as decision-makers, planners, managers, scientists and technical advisers in programs for sustainable development." Governments acknowledged the crucial role women play in promoting environmental awareness in the Rio +5 evaluation, and encouraged more opportunities to be created "for women to participate effectively in economic, social and political development as equal partners in all sectors of the economy." A wide range of newly formed NGOs in the 1990s to implement the specific strategies of UN agendas continue organizing the necessary infrastructure to include women and girls in policy planning.

While efforts have been made at policy levels to acknowledge the critical role women play in environmental sustainability as local natural resource managers and as agriculturalists, the application of a universal gender analysis to environmental policy planning does not exist. Regulatory frameworks continue to exclude women and girls. Entrenched social and cultural gender norms continue to exclude women and girls. UNIFEM acknowledges in last year's annual report that although women throughout the world are the main care-givers and nurturers of our future generation, she still receives less education than men. Current development research finds that improvement in women's economic status may not be a sufficient condition to change social, cultural and political status (Varma, 1993).

There still are no targets for improving women's economic status or for reducing the "feminization" of poverty. Women's environmental NGOs report that it is still men who are in important environmental positions (WomenWatch). At the national level, in many countries where laws give the same rights to women as to men, it is still only the powerful men who are benefiting from land tenure rights. Globalization has, on one hand, opened up new international experiences for women, but it has, on the other, created new inequalities that profoundly impact the lives of women and children.

Other problems contributing to the failure of a successful gender analysis framework are that policy planning for all women is problematic--women are not a homogenous category, but a diverse range of class, ethnicity, religion and so forth. Cultural and environmental contexts are unique and not all gender relationships and gender divisions of labor come from Western patriarchal values. Some rural indigenous communities, for example, share tasks and adapt to environmental conditions.2

Beyond academic theoretical debates of women's greater connection to the earth (or as peacemakers) based on either her childbearing capacities or women's knowledge vis-à-vis her experiences, on-going entrenched cultural and social attitudes and behaviors towards gender roles continue to inhibit women's participation in important decision-making processes, both on the ground and in policy planning. Western hegemonic practices in the North and South continue push the planet beyond its carrying capacity limit. The current affairs of our planet's condition require us to move beyond the controversies and limitations of theory and apply sound praxis to seriously inequitable real life situations. If women are the storehouse, the keepers of local resource management, we need to look beyond material solutions to find spiritual solutions that will lead the world to learning from women's knowledge at all levels. Only when women speak, and only when women's voices are heard, can communities learn more about environmental stewardship from those whose livelihoods are most dependent upon their direct relationship with the land.

What is a Baha'i perspective of women, gender and environment?

What were previously named "women's problems" are viewed within the Baha'i community as humanity's problems. Systems solutions to these complex problems seek higher level communication skills for women and men to collaborate in partnership. Structured consultative processes based on spiritual principles yield changes that can elevate communities to new and more complex stages of growth. For example, women in poor, rural communities frequently suffer from protein deficiencies. When these women can articulate their need for greater nutrition, the community might consult on ways to compost its vegetable peelings to make higher quality soil instead of fattening the pigs for market. New produce could be bartered or sold for animal grain. Numerous case study show that when women contribute her voice to community problems, it is she who knows best where the clean water can be found, or it is she who calls for building schools for the children. Frequently, these case studies reveal, men seek short-term fixes to immediate problems, and it is the women who keep the well-being of the village's future generation in mind and heart.

The Baha'i Writings make clear the link between the spiritual principle of the fundamental equality of women and men and the building of a sustainable civilization. Baha'u'llah asserted, "The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established." The unity of humankind and its harmony can only be achieved when women participate fully in all aspects of society. The Baha'i Writings also acknowledge the importance of transforming "harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the workplace, to political life, and ultimately to international relations." Gender practices prevent women's "full partnership in all fields of human endeavor."

The worldview held by the Baha'i community sees the evolutionary unfoldment of humankind shifting from the turbulent stage of adolescence to the increasing complexity of maturity and acknowledges that the "more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind" are "losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy." Over the ages, these feminine qualities have been assigned to women, and these qualities received the least value. The Baha'i writings are clear that the qualities of love and service must be developed by all humankind. Women have internalized negative messages about the qualities in which she is most strong, and men have learned to distant themselves from their own feminine attributes.

Combating these internalized messages is an inner struggle as well as a social and cultural struggle. The battle requires much certitude and support, but the victors of this transformation are the healers of our environmentally ill world.

This section looked at the recent development context for women and at Baha'i perspectives on for women, gender and environment. It is women's voices that are least included in important decision-making processes, and it is women who are most inhibited about her participation. The task of Baha'i communities and SED projects is to use creative methods to simultaneously dismantle the negative and harmful attitudes towards women and feminine qualities, and involve women as significant contributors to decision making. The next section will introduce the case study, a methodology for participation and will close with thoughts about spiritual indicators.

Case Study Personal Background

In the spring of 2000, I visited the original participants of the 1992-1993 UNIFEM/BIC "Traditional Media as Change Agent"3 project implemented in one of the three project sites--several remote, rural, Quehua communities in the Andean region of Bolivia. I wanted to learn lessons about the extent to which this development model succeeded as a gender change agent to influence attitudes and behaviors and thereby improve women and girls' lives. I was writing doctoral dissertation research, and I wanted to learn more about the problems created by material approaches to development that excluded women4. I wanted to study a development approach whose assumptions were informed by the spiritual principles of the Baha'i Faith, specifically the link between the equality of women and men and the building of a sustainable civilization. I was aware of the project's success, and along with so many others, frequently used one of the projects' results, the "Two Wings" video, to promote the principle of the equality of women and men in educational or training settings. I had learned from published reports that the project achieved more systemic results in sites with greater institutional cooperation and support and had been advised to follow-up with the Cameroon implementation.5 However, I wanted to accomplish a personal teaching goal in the final years of the Four Year Plan and insisted on returning to my mother-continent, Latin America. Although the project did not specifically target environmental concerns, I wondered how the different environmental contexts influenced the project.


I have lived most of my life "on the inside" as somewhat of "an outsider." I am a second-generation American and my imagined home was the South, although I lived in the North. In going South, I would become the outsider once again, but this time in my imagined home. I selected a methodology that I thought would best equalize research relations and minimize my "outsideness." The methods, I thought, would best engage women to come forth and talk about their lives, and would best encourage their participation.

Participatory action research (PAR) methods is an alternative research method where "ordinary" people participate in "people power" (Rahman, 1993), and the silent are given voice (Freire, 1970). It is a method of social investigation rooted in the belief that people have the capacity to re-channel collective energies towards a better course of action for justice and equity (Fals Borda, 1995). Knowledge is considered the property of the community and the creative responsibility of the local people to generate. PAR's assessment equivalent, transformative evaluation (P-TE), empowers groups social and economically marginalized to participate in their own community based investigation. Education and action leads to structural and personal transformation (Maguire, 1993). The application of this approach to Bolivia made sense since innovative approaches to Latin American studies view "testimonials" as a venue for marginalized women to "participate in the production of knowledge about Gender and Development" (Marchand, 1995).

These methods provide structure for consultation and facilitate involvement by all village people -- women, men and youth -- to process, plan and make decisions about how development is done in their own communities.6 The approach lends itself to both Baha'i inspired, and institutionally sponsored social and economic development initiatives as ways to include women and serve the entire community at large to identify, assess, plan, implement, monitor and evaluate their own environmental degradation problems.7

As I mentioned earlier, I am only beginning to analyze my data, therefore I am not ready to really talk with assurance about my hunches, thoughts, and feelings. However, one very short interview stands out in my mind as a solid example of why it is important for women to speak and for women’s voice to be heard in making decisions about the environment. I will share the context for my experience in this community and for the interview. The women and the community's name have been changed to guarantee anonymity. Interviews were conducted in Quechua, translated to Spanish and tapes were transcribed into English.

"God Wants that the Children Don't Stay in the City"

Sadí lives in Hualitoco, an isolated, rural Quechua located 20 minutes by truck or 4 hours on foot from Llaynitici, a small community in the Chuquisaca department of central Bolivia known best for selling magnificent weavings at its Saturday market. In Quechua, Hualitoco means barren land. Although the land yields potatoes, Hualitoco is primarily eroded, dry, dusty soil. Of about 90-100 Hualitoco villagers, 80 people in Hualitoco are Baha'is. Sadí is the wife of Raul Costique, an amouta, an elected spiritual community leader "sworn to help the people," and is a member of the Chuquisaca Regional Council. Sadí is about 35 years old, has 4 children, and in addition to her daily responsibilities which include childcare, food preparation, cooking, and watching the animals, she is responsible for managing a productive potato farm. The Costique family, along with other Baha'is from Hualitoco, were key actors in establishing a successful model school that now receives funding from the Bolivian government. Sadí used to attend the school on Saturday's where she learned Spanish as a second language. Considered literate and educated by rural standards, Sadí has a third-grade education, the maximum Bolivian requirement for rural, indigenous people.

Sadí, along with the other women, rise early in the morning, prepare the morning meal which generally consists of boiled potatoes, ají, a puree of red pepper, garlic and cumin, and a potato and grain soup for her family. After caring for the children, and depending upon the season, she will work in the fields and gather firewood for fuel. Mid-day, she returns home to prepare the afternoon meal, will care for the children, and after eating, will return to the field, this time to tend the sheep or gather more firewood. While watching the animals, she will spin yarn, and on occasion, will weave with the other women. The young children are with her throughout her chores, the older children attend the community school. In this community, the children are able to achieve a 6th grade education.

On Saturday, the women can attend school. The women in Hualitoco value education, especially because their husbands, brothers or fathers, many of which do not read nor write, deepen on the importance of education in Baha'i cursillos, study courses. Sadí views education not just as a benefit for herself, education is a way to break the pattern of oppression linked to working the land:

Education is very important to me for this reason: We as mothers are more interested in our children, therefore we are going to force ourselves more and more now so that the children do not have to work the land, so that they have a profession and that they don't have to work suffer as we have to. We want our children to rise above where we are now.

For schooling beyond the primary level, the Quechua are forced to leave the village for the city. Urban relocation for better access to education, along with land pressure in the countryside, contributes to increasing urban migration. Frequently, youth remain in cities to earn an income in Bolivia's highly active informal market. This trend threatens the sustainability of rural communities.

I would like, in the first place, God wants that the children don't stay in the city. In the second place, always I would like that they come back and remain in the village to help the community rise above its current condition. I would like them to remain in the same community so that they finish their education here. In this way they help others. I would like that we had some work here to bring young people back into the community. If there were work here they wouldn't have to go to the city. I know they are suffering here, but if they could do some work in here so that they wouldn't have to go to the city. I would like to see jobs with specific skills, like mechanics, carpentry, seamstresses, engineering, teachers, jobs like this. By this way they can stay here and we always be together.

Although this school attracts attention from around the country, the teachers who come from beyond bring their own values. Sadí talks of cultural sustainablity:

There are teachers who come in and who can't teach about our reality and they leave. We need people who live and learn here and then teach here so that everyone is living within their reality, within the reality of our same community. So, the people who are from here come from here, (rise from, sprout from) so we pass through all generations.

Not unlike the response from all women I spoke to when asked what they wish for their lives, Sadí concluded with tears in her eyes:

I want my children to be good, that they are educated, that they have a profession. I don't want them to end up like I am. I don't want them to be like me. And, may God grant that we are not separated, my children and I. I always want to live with them, I don't want to be abandoned, I want that we are always together.

Men's Visions for the Future

After facilitating a development deepening for the rural indigenous believers and the regional council in a nearby city for my service project, I was invited to Hualitoco to meet with the village elders (most of which were young). As I had done before, I facilitated the group of about 15 men through an in-depth visioning exercise where they were asked to imagine their community 10 years from today. Working backwards from their imagined future to the actual present, they would then be asked to chart the steps they would have to follow to get from here to there. The shared vision of the men's imagined future included a university and a hospital. Sadí and another woman sat outside the circle and near the cook fire where they peeled potatoes during the discussion, although they did participate in the visioning exercise. When I asked Sadí and the other woman to share their visions, they both reiterated Sadí's narrative. They spoke of their children and of their desire for a future that included them in the community of Hualitoco.

Spiritual Indicators as Gender Analysis?

How do we measure progress towards achieving our goals? Current strategies for achieving the goals set at UN Global conferences on women and environmental conferences call for applying a gender analysis to environmental planning. Gender analysis is an analytical tool that measures resource allocation, resource access, and division of labor according to gender. Indicators measure how well progress is being made towards achieving that goal.

How one defines development determines what one has to say about it. The analysis adapts to the definition, and the indicator adapts to what is being measured. For example, a gender and development project that empowers women to break the cycle of poverty might provide income-generating loans. Prompt loan repayment and producing an income for her family might be indicator to measure progress towards empowerment. If the spiritual is manifest through the material, there might be a negative long-term impact on the family. Since men are also victims of modernization practices, then as Mona Grieser postulates, micro-enterprises for women might alienate disenfranchised men, or break already fragile ties within the family. 8

In the paper presented to the World Bank, The Baha'i International Community introduces spiritual principles of development, focal areas of development, standards and targets and the concept of spiritual indicators to measure the quality, direction, pace and results of progress.9 It is not within the scope of this paper to fully examine these initial considerations, however, I would like invite the Baha'i development community to dialogue on what indicators we might use to measure progress towards the path to building sustainable communities.

A further question for consideration is:
· What would spiritually based indicators that applied the principle of the equality of the sexes to the environmental stewardship policy area look like? In other words, how can the small, isolated, rural community of Hualitoco, a Baha'i community of 80, where men are used to making the decisions and where the women struggle to gather the strength to speak, sustain itself?


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1. In 1987, when the Brundtland Report published Our Common Future, women engaged in WED work within the growing NGO movement insisted on policies aimed at "sustainable" development.

2. e-correspondence with Teresa Flores, an environmental policy planner from Bolivia.

3. As an advocacy agency for the Baha'i Faith within the United Nations, the International Baha'i Community promotes programming that contributes to the advancement of the status of women and includes the education of girls and the involvement of men in the consultative process. At the end of the 1980s development decade, UNIFEM took a leading role in GAD approaches and the UNIFEM/BIC partnership was one of UNIFEM's early gender projects and the first internationally funded project for the BIC. For more information about the project, see "Traditional Media for Gender Communication" by Pamela Brooke, Pact Publications, 1996.

4. Ester Boserup's book Women's Role in Economic Development revealed to social scientists the contribution of women in the productive sectors, primarily in agriculture. Her economic exposé outlined the ways women do not automatically benefit from development programs and how, in fact, as these programs shift men's roles, they lead to the deterioration of women's role and status. She concluded that as modernization policies pulled men from agricultural sectors to industrial sectors, women in subsistence agricultural sectors had not access to credits, training and technology. Economic development planners had ignored women's important contribution to agriculture (and to other productive activities in the household and community). Modernization was having a negative impact on women by "changing patterns in the sexual division of labor and displacing them from their traditional areas of work" (Braidotti, p. 79).

5. In the case study overview for a workshop presented at the 1996 Baha'i Conference on Social and Economic Development for the Americas by Richard Grieser, Ph.D., Analysis of Traditional Media as Change Agent: A Women and Men Development Project in Cameroon, Malaysia and Bolivia, lessons learned highlight degrees of consultation led to greater institutional "ownership" and commitment . In Community Environment Action: The National Policy Context, Fabio Feldmann states that long-term sustainable behavioral changes in a community require that an empowered local institution work along side national legislative and executive institutions.

6. A study of this methodology, my own ethical concerns as an "inside/outsider" in an indigenous Baha'i community, how I actually came to "do" PAR research, and the actual and perceived results warrants a paper of its own. However, this conversation is outside the scope of this workshop presentation on gender, environment and development.

7. e-conversations with Austin Bowden Kirby about his research with the Coral Garden Initiation Project using PLA (participatory learning and action) in Fiji and Cecil Cooke in South Africa support this statement. I look forward to more opportunities where Baha'i SED practioners using PAR, PRA, and PLA techniques can talk about their successes and challenges applying these tools to the Baha'i principles of consultation.

8. In her paper Women, Poverty and Income: A Systems Approach, Mona Grieser suggests more research in necessary to assess the positive and negative short and long term affects of income-generating loans for women. She argues that the goals of the popular "women-only programs" of the 1990s may achieve the same results through partnership and consultation with men. Men, she says, are integral to the development paradigm and that an inclusionary model provides a richer and healthier social climate for further development to take place.

9. Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritual Based Indicators for Development is published the Baha'i Publishing Trust in London. The paper presented to the World Bank by The Baha'i International Community contains the theoretical and contextual framework for applying the spiritual indicators.

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Last updated 26 December 2000