A Feminist Approach to Climate Justice

Anupama Nair

In a world which constantly questions feminism, this is why women could be the game-changers in climate action

Concern and action to protect the environment have gained a lot of traction in recent times, with more and more people worried about the future of the planet under the imminent threat of climate change and its projected repercussions. The past couple of years have seen a considerable rise in the number of people, especially the youth, taking to the streets to protest against political inaction over climate change. While climate change is one such concern that involves the whole world, there have been several different environmental problems specific to countries, often to do with particular communities, that have rallied the masses.

“These trees were sacred to the community, and their form of dissent comprised the simple act of hugging the trees, signifying their willingness to die to protect them”

India has a long history of community movements and other forms of activism for environmental protection, many of which have been quite influential in shaping the way the state handles matters concerning environmental wellbeing. The Khejri or Bishnoi movement of 1726, the first well-known action of this kind, saw members of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan attempt to prevent the felling of Khejri trees by their ruler for construction purposes. These trees were sacred to the community, and their form of dissent comprised the simple act of hugging the trees, signifying their willingness to die to protect them.

“But what might strike one about many instances of environmental activism in India is the central role that women have played in them”

Many colonial and post-independence laws have since directed large scale exploitation of natural resources, resulting in the displacement and disruption of the lives of countless people in the country. Some of these have been successful, others not so much. But what might strike one about many instances of environmental activism in India is the central role that women have played in them.

The Bishnoi movement is famous for having been led by a woman, Amrita Devi, who gave her life along with over 360 other community members for this cause. The Narmada Bachao Andolan is also strongly associated with activist Medha Patkar, who mobilised thousands of people in two states to protest peacefully against the Sardar Sarovar dam project. Further south, Sugathakumari played a crucial role in the Save Silent Valley movement. In academic circles, Vandana Shiva is renowned for being very vocal about the perils of industrial agriculture and globalisation at large. And Sunita Narain, another well-known figure in Indian environmentalism, is currently the director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment, a non-profit research and advocacy organisation in Delhi.

While these are just a few names that have been at the forefront, they represent a significant population of women environmentalists in India. They work not only through activism, but also in the ways they interact with nature every day.

A vital discourse that has shaped the narrative on women and the environment is ecofeminism, which draws a parallel between the oppression of women and environmental degradation by attributing them to patriarchy and capitalism.

A form of this theory is cultural ecofeminism. Criticised for being essentialist in comparing women to ‘Mother Earth’, it holds that concern for the environment is inherent to women owing to their reproductive ability and their nurturing and compassionate nature. Vandana Shiva is a famous proponent of cultural ecofeminism.

More recent versions of this theory, such as social ecofeminism, argue that the oppression of women by a society dominated by men and the assignment of roles that are less removed from nature render them more vulnerable to environmental hazards. Many such ‘natural’ disasters and extreme weather events have increased in frequency and intensity as a direct result of the consequences of conventional economic development, and among those most negatively affected are women. 

In most societies, women continue to play the primary role of managing the household, taking care of all family members, procuring and using the resources required by the household or community, all of which bring them closer to nature. Women, therefore, acquire different kinds of valuable knowledge and experience with regards to environmental management. Although cultural and social ecofeminism differ greatly in theory, they agree that increased involvement of women in key decision-making roles and challenging patriarchal norms are necessary for holistic environmental management. 

Studies do point to higher levels of environmental consciousness and action among women. Research in western nations confirms that women recycle more, have a better understanding of the risks and threats of climate change and are more likely to be in favour of environmental regulations. Marketing and consumer behaviour reveal that women are far bigger consumers of eco-friendly products than men. Even in the west, household activities largely remain the domain of women, making them the target for all types of household products. But another reason suggested for this behaviour is the association of ‘greenness’ with femininity. One particular study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that this association may motivate men to avoid or even oppose eco-friendly choices ‘in order to safeguard their gender identity’.

“the persistence of gender roles that are firmly adhered to by both men and women, arguably place Indian women in a position where they can champion the cause of gender equality along with environmental protection”

It wouldn’t be surprising to unearth similar findings in India. In line with social ecofeminist thinking, the persistence of gender roles that are firmly adhered to by both men and women, arguably place Indian women in a position where they can champion the cause of gender equality along with environmental protection. Ecofeminists have long contended with how this can be achieved. Differences in location (urban or rural), religion, caste and class, amongst other things, create a vast array of women, all of whom undergo different experiences of oppression and also have differing relationships with nature. 

The migration of men from rural households in many parts of the country has left women in charge of several villages, where they have started to occupy roles that were previously limited to men. Women in other parts of rural India have been encouraged to organise themselves into self-help groups and increase their involvement in local governance. In tribal communities, women come together to market local resources and earn money. 

Similarly, women in the city have been starting businesses that are eco-friendly with regards to their products or services and how they operate. Formal education of girls all over the country has also seen a considerable rise, with the gender parity at primary school level now eliminated. All these instances are examples of ‘empowerment’ of women in various settings, pointing to the potential role of the Indian woman—if there could be such a singular identity—to lift an ‘oppressed’ environment along with them.

“This idea has the potential to resonate among Indian women now more than ever, with questions of gender and climate justice coming to the forefront throughout the world”

This idea has the potential to resonate among Indian women now more than ever, with questions of gender and climate justice coming to the forefront throughout the world. Gender equality is increasingly recognised as a potential accelerator for achieving sustainable development, with known positive spill-over effects on the environment. Not only is higher representation of women in positions of power associated with greater environmental action, but a recent study on Green parties in various European countries also finds the parties to be “universally feminist,” suggesting that benefits flow both ways. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely have its own set of implications on gender equality and women’s rights and safety. However, the emphasis on the need for upliftment of women in society must remain.

While it may not be necessary for all action towards environmental sustainability to also improve gender equality or vice versa, intentional action to link the two could result in the possibility of women taking the lead in concerted efforts to bring down further environmental degradation. Empowering women to occupy more leadership positions, along with greater dissemination of information about the state of the environment, could therefore collectively work miracles in the fight for climate justice.

Anupama is a researcher at the Indian Institute of Science, currently trying to figure out how her work could help improve the environment and society at large.

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