Environmental issues are women’s issues. The pollution of our water and the poisoning of our lands usually affect women hardest. While carrying these burdens, women are uniquely positioned to conceive the solutions to those threats, as it is women who have traditionally been the stewards of our most vital resources.
Take, for example, access to clean freshwater supplies. When water sources are contaminated or unavailable, it’s often women and children who are hit hardest. They may be required to spend more labor collecting and storing water, as well as protecting their water sources, which can leave them with little or no time for other activities, such as getting an education. In some parts of Africa, women and children spend up to eight hours a day collecting water. Since they are often the caretakers in their families, women face the challenge of dealing with diseases from contaminated water. More than half of the 1.2 billion people who do not have access to safe water are women and girls.
The situation in the world’s agricultural fields is similar. More than half of the world’s farmers are women: In sub-Saharan Africa, women account for 70 to 80 percent of household food production; in Asia, 65 percent. How we use or abuse our agricultural resources therefore has a large impact on women. Unsafe fertilizer and pesticide application has led to birth defects and learning disabilities among agricultural workers.
As mothers, urban women often feel the effects of industrial pollution and contamination most acutely. Yet traditionally, women have had the least say in the regulatory policies that govern industries. Already disproportionately burdened by pollution, women are frequently excluded from decision-making, which serves only to compound environmental injustices.
Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA) responds to these threats by empowering women to create the solutions to such problems. Because women suffer the worst from contaminated water, they know best what it will take to ensure clean water. Because they work the land, they have some of best ideas about how to foster sustainable agriculture. Because they often live closest to the factory fence lines and are forced to pass on pollutants through their breast milk, women regularly take to the frontlines of campaigns to clean up decades of contamination.
WEA grew out of a meeting that occurred in 2005, when more than 30 activists, entrepreneurs, educators, health workers, and community leaders – all chosen by their peers – met in Mexico City to chart a common course of action. WEA was founded on the belief that the health of future generations and the sustainability of our world’s cultural heritage are predicated on the degree to which women have their basic needs met, and, most importantly, are agents of change. The world needs women capable of innovating short- and long-term solutions in order to adapt to the complex realities of environmental changes and globalization.
In just a few years, WEA has put that belief into action. In 2006, the group took a team of women environmental attorneys and agriculture experts to Bolivia to partner with communities there to halt the spread of genetically modified soy. In June of 2008, WEA co-sponsored the African Women and Water Conference with organizations A Single Drop, Crabgrass, and Groots Kenya to train women on how to launch low-cost, sustainable, income-generating water projects in communities across Africa. And last fall, WEA hosted a lawyers’ delegation to the Indigenous nations of the US Southwest to meet with Native American women who are fighting environmental destruction on their traditional lands.
The partnerships forged during these meetings were powerful. “I think it’s necessary to bridge, to make connections between different groups,” Genesis Fisher, a public defender from New York City, said toward the end of the Southwest tour. “Because we’re really all fighting a similar fight, which is the fight to have our legal rights recognized and the fight for justice.”
—Melinda Kramer & Jason Mark
In October, WEA will host a delegation to India focused on sustainable agriculture. The delegation will include farmers, activists, researchers, organizers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders who will lay the groundwork for a long-term Women and Land movement. If you are interested in joining the trip to India, please e-mail arielle (at) womensearthalliance.org.
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