Women in Environmental Decision-Making

The absence of women, particularly those from the global South, from national and international discussions and decision-making on climate change and development must change. The battle to protect the environment is not solely about technological innovation—it is also about empowering women and their communities to hold their government accountable for results.” – Mary Robinson and the late Wangari Maathai

Sitting under a mango tree in front of a house with no electricity, I am a world away from the environmental decision-making and policy development happening in Washington D.C. or Bonn. The family I am interviewing has never heard of “climate change,” but they are experiencing its already apparent consequences. Dependent on agriculture and the surrounding forest for their survival, this family engages in important environmental-decision making daily, yet their micro-level decisions will never make international headlines.

To contribute to a qualitative impact evaluation of existing environmental projects provided by environmental NGOs and the Indian government (such as solar panel installation or well building), we conducted interviews with households currently participating in the projects. One purpose of interviewing the current beneficiaries of the projects is to understand what factors and motives influenced their decision to participate.

One household had received a subsidized lemon tree orchard, which provides an additional source of income and acts as a biological control for erosion. Although the orchard had been planted one year earlier, the women of the household were not aware of what organization had subsidized the orchard—simply put, where the orchard came from—or the orchard’s ecological and economic benefits to the household, nor had they been present when the household made the decision to plant the orchard.

Another part of our project is to assess the communities’ awareness of NGO projects. We interviewed community decision-makers, such as the sarpanch, the elected leader of five-village assembly known as a panchayat. For our villages’ panchayat, the elected leader is a sarpanchni—a woman. Women are now active leaders in panchayats, in part because of legislative reform establishing a minimum quota for positions to be held by women. However, after a conversation with the sarpanchni, it became evident that she is just a figurehead. Although she is of a high caste and was elected by her community, her husband is the sarpanch in practice. He assumes the role of the sarpanch and is the dominant actor in local decision-making. In fact, villagers in other households we interviewed candidly referred to her husband as the sarpanch. 

Worldwide, women have been, and continue to be, severely underrepresented in macro-level environmental decision-making as well as in household and community decision-making. Last year, I attended the UN Climate Change Negotiations in Warsaw, Poland (COP19) as part of the Duke Delegation. Often, I found myself one of a few women in the negotiation rooms. Just 30 percent of the 10,000 negotiators from 189 countries were women, and a mere 15 percent of party heads were women.

At last year’s COP, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released the first-ever Environment and Gender Index (EGI). The EGI, “measures and monitors countries’ progress toward gender equality and women’s empowerment in the environmental arena.” The Index ranks countries on 27 dimensions, such as access to sanitation, political stability, property rights, and the inclusion of gender in UNFCCC reporting.

The EGI Framework, IUCN
The EGI Framework, IUCN

Of the 72 countries included in the Index, India ranks 46th. India has a female Minister of the Environment and a prolific network of NGOs focusing on women’s empowerment. According to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, India is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, yet India cannot fully address the challenges of climate change by excluding half of its population from decision-making.