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  • Writer's pictureDr. Farrukh Chishtie

Eco-women movement for beneficial change


Dr. Farrukh Chishtie

A social and environmental movement requires commitment and effort at all levels. Subh-e-Nau (SN)aims to involve citizens from all sections of society; however, the role of women in this regard remains relatively unrecognized and unrealized, especially in Pakistan. Eco-Women Movement aims to highlight and support their pioneering efforts while bringing due attention to the plight they face due to environmental degradation.

By contributing vitally to the sustenance of humanity, women continue to be a life affirming force against local and global challenges. With environmental problems reaching global proportions, they can dramatically branch and extend their benign relationships with Nature towards curbing its continual damage. With the climate crisis reaching deadly levels, women have and can make significant contributions in resolving this crisis.

The deep connection between women and nature comes from their daily and mutually beneficial relations. Both in the developed and especially in the developing world, women are considered the primary users of natural resources including land, forest, and water since they are the ones who are typically responsible for gathering food, fuel, and fodder. This brings women to a close relationship with land and other natural resources, which promote a new culture of respectful use and preservations of environment, such that next generations can meet their needs.

This is true especially in the rural areas, where women rely heavily on the natural environment. The increasing use of pesticides and other chemical inputs has made much of the environment poisonous with little to offer for sustenance. Environmental issues are responsible for causing a whopping 80% of the disease burden today, and are becoming an increasing cause of death, disability and loss of livelihoods for millions, every single day. The degradation of natural resources, therefore, inevitably transforms and even undermines basic livelihood patterns, making the situation of rural women difficult with an increase in workload, a decrease in income and a worsened state of health.

The role of women in environmental struggles and debates about nature have traditionally been hidden in history, as texts talk less about women participation in such causes. However, the role of women in recent centuries’ environment crises is significant enough to get attention of the world. For the past few decades, women of every social class, nation and color have raised their concerns about the environment more noticeably. Some of the brave women have even spearheaded successful ecologically based movements. Concerned women of our age wants to prove to the world that they can make a difference and become a powerful force for positive changes in the environment and the world around them.

Some people rightly think that women’s perspectives and values for the environment are somewhat different from that of men. Women give greater priority to care for nature and environment’s future. Studies have shown that women have a greater stake in environment, and this stake shows in the degree to which they care about natural resources. This concern is reflected in the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and Chipko Tehreek of India in the recent past.

Today, women struggle against alarming global trends including climate impacts to effect change. By establishing domestic and international non-governmental organizations, many women have recognized and acknowledged to the world that they not only have the right to participate in environmental dilemmas, but they have a different relationship with the environment including different needs, responsibilities, and knowledge about natural resources. An outstanding reason is how women are affected so differently than men are by environmental degradation, deforestation, pollution, and overpopulation.

They are often the most directly affected by environmental issues, so they become more concerned about environmental problems. Studies have shown the direct effects of chemicals and pesticides on human health. According to United Nations Chronicle, journal researchers have found an association between breast cancer and the pesticide DDT and its derivative DDE; and one study by the World Health Organization has found that women who are exposed to pesticides face a higher risk of abortion. These kinds of health problems cause women to feel more responsible regarding environmental issues.

Given the environmental degradation caused while men have had dominance over women, and women’s large investment in environmental sustainability, some have theorized that women would protect the Earth better than men would. Although there is no full evidence for this hypothesis, recent movements have shown that women are more sensitive to the earth and its problems. They have created a special value system about environmental issues. People's approaches to environmental issues may depend on their relationship with nature. Since both women and nature have been considered as subordinate entities by men throughout history, which conveys a close affiliation between them.

Throughout history, men have looked at natural resources as commercial entities or income generating tools, while women have tended to see the environment as a resource supporting their basic needs. As an example, rural Indian women collect the dead branches, which are cut by storm for fuel wood to use rather than cutting the live trees. Since African, Asian, and Latin American women use the land to produce food for their family, they acquire the knowledge of the land and soil conditions, water, and other environmental features.

Any changes in the environment on these areas, like deforestation, have the most effect on women of that area, and cause them to suffer until they can cope with these changes. One of the good examples would be the Nepali women whose grandmothers had to climb to the mountain to be able to bring in wood and fodder.

Gender-based commitments and movements such as feminism have reached to a new approach through the combination of feminism and environmentalism called Ecofeminism. Eco feminists believe on the interconnection between the domination of women and nature. According to ecofeminism the superior power treats all subordinates the same. Therefore, ecofeminism considers women’s subordination and nature degradation. One can clearly see that since most policy decision makers are men, however, women have responded more sensitively and actively to environmental dilemmas and debates. The global environmental challenge is much closer to their hearts and being, and for this, they hold a very key in the very survival of life on the planet.

To further the spirit of this cause, the active participation of women and integration of gender issues in environmental policies and actions are critical determinants for implementation of various global accords and commitments. Subh-e-Nau (SN) has provided its platform to launch the global Eco-Women Movement (EWM) in Pakistan since its inception in 2004, and it aims at ensuring the maximum participation of women in the efforts to fight environmental degradation, climate change and resulting health issues.

It is also a fact that SN is one of the few environmental organizations in the country, founded and run by a concerned woman, Mrs. Shahida Kausar Farooq. Her initiatives, like massive plantations with special emphasis on planting indigenous trees and post-plantation care are actions that have well established its empowerment of women towards the cause of the environment.

Madam Shahida Kausar Farooq has pioneered in the adoption of the National Day of Plantation, which was passed by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, in his tenure. This day was adopted to be August 18 each. Moreover, she lead in instituting that Indigenous species be only allowed for plantation drives with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, passing the Municipal Emergency Bill in Sindh among many other achievements. Besides plantation, she has been a staunch advocate for water conservation, which have been practically implemented by building rainwater harvesting systems across parts of Pakistan, including OPF colleges in Islamabad. She has been advocating for an equal representation of women in sports and has led the development of women’s tennis in Pakistan.

As such SN EWM calls on women from all levels to join in improving conditions affecting the lives of human being. Nature entrusted humanity the job of nurturing life, and we should be dedicated to the cause of continuing life on earth - the way nature intended. The EWM campaign aims at empowering women to tackle health and environmental issues on a self-help basis. The philosophy of the campaign is that women should take up challenges such as childhood cancers to build a healthier society for themselves, their children, and as a result the whole society, for the present and coming generations. Cancers and miscarriages have become common women’s health issues today amongst all classes within Pakistan’s society.

Women being traditionally closer to nature have challenged this status quo. Kenyan women of the Green Belt movement banded together to plant millions of trees in degraded lands. In India, they formed the Chipko movement to preserve precious forests for their children. In Sweden, they offered jam prepared from pesticide-laden berries to members of parliament. In Canada, they took to the streets to obtain signatures opposing nuclear fuel processing, while in the US States, they have and continue to organize local support to clean up hazardous waste sites.

The EWM offers such a forum to women from different walks of life, be it working or non-working women, to address issues to whatever extent possible depending on their relative capacity. Women should not be silent sufferers of inhuman acts of blind development.

If one male bread winner gets a life-threatening disease, it is invariably the women of the family that take up the challenge of meeting ends meet and bringing up children. If one child gets lung cancer, an ever-increasing disease due to the high level of air pollution, it is the mother who suffers the most, not to forget the pains she took to bring that child into this world.

If we see little deeper, there is no dearth of eco-women in Pakistan, who in past have constructively and pro-actively contributed to the environment cause. Women activists, namely Faryal Gauhar and Imrana Tiwana, effectively led recent Lahore Bachao Tehreek (Save the Lahore Movement). City District Government of Lahore had planned to add one lane on each side of canal bank roads. Thousands of trees grown up in last 50 years were planned to be cut down to give just 18 feet more to the motorists. Faryal and Imrana were not only women in this movement. They enjoyed the full support of many males and concerned citizens besides other women like Rabia Ezdi and Saima Khwaja. The movement bore fruits. During the construction of a new underpass on canal bank road, the old trees were shifted to next suitable places instead of being cut down.

Rabia Azedi of Lahore had challenged the Lahore WASA Privatization and spearheaded the anti-privatization campaign.

Samiya Mumtaz of Daali Earth Foods has been growing organic wheat and cereals for several years now. Her products, including brown rice, whole-wheat flour, porridge, mustard oil and whole fruit jams and marmalades are all available at a Lahore’s bakery, which offers only organic products. In a similar vein, a woman named Shahida Perveen Hannesen runs an organic food-based bakery called Roshni.

Samiya Mumtaz is a clear example of a successful green initiative by a woman. Samiya comes from an enlightened family of Lahore. She is the daughter of renowned architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz. Samiya is successfully managing a big agriculture farm in Barki village near Lahore, where vegetables and other organic products are grown without any intervention of chemical input. The piece of land is bought after a group of citizens led by Samiya, who pooled their resources to get fresh, organic, and natural products. The project is not only adequate to provide fresh vegetables and other products to its members but also a source of income for the members, as the vegetables and other products grown organically are sold at a selective outlet of the city on premium prices.

Besides such urban-based upper middle-class projects, some families in Chichawatni area of Sahiwal district grow purely organic vegetables. Cultivated vegetables are looked after by the women of a family while the marketing is the responsibility of the men members. The vegetables are sold in Sahiwal city daily on little higher prices than that of vegetable grown with the help of chemical inputs. Though the villager women of Chichawatni may not critically appreciate their initiative, their contribution to this healthy trend is significant.

There must be hundreds such stories spread across the country, where there are hundreds of thousands of such bright examples of environmentally conscious women reside. It is important to document all such initiatives at the platform of EWM such that all these efforts translate into an organized movement. EWM plans to remove physical distance and lack of interaction amongst these various, yet like-minded women across the country. As such, we aspire to bring together the efforts of all these women, which will lead toa lasting positive change that our country as well as our planet, critically needs.

Where is EWM now?

EWM has already taken off in Pakistan. Subh-e-Nau is working with empowered and educated women, including those in power. Women writers, environment and health activists, rights activists and students are in contact and getting involved in the campaign.

SN is also working with the media, universities and at many other levels, wherever there is an opportunity to make a change, however small that might be. The aspiration is to build momentum such that these issues of relevance are bought to the fore and their solution actively sought.

For this purpose, the help of opinion leaders, volunteers and media are also included, in order to communicate the environmental cost on our health and lifestyle, and the ways through which women can effectively contain this cost.

What can women do?

Women can and will bring about a lasting change in the country. There are lot of things that they can do on their own for the betterment of environment and collective health of household and the nation. For example, water and energy conservation on household level will remain an elusive task if the women are not actively involved in such campaigns.

Our traditional women can better understand the benefits of optimum use of fuel, energy, water. Kitchen gardening is the best example of such endeavors, which guarantees fresh supply of essentially organic vegetables to middle class families by reutilizing the kitchen water for growing vegetables in lawns (See Zahrah Nasir’s article “Urban Gardening Part 1” in this issue for further details). Household women can effectively reduce the CFC emissions through regulating the use of refrigerator and air-conditioners. The list of such achievable initiatives is quite big. Above all, a woman can help her children become environmentally aware by imparting education and letting them develop a much-needed critical eye.

Plantation and women

Women generally participate much eagerly in plantation campaigns as well as taking care of them in the long term. A careful consideration for our women is the need is to motivate and educate them that they should plant only indigenous plants and trees, which are suitable for our local environment. We should shed off complexes that we have as a nation – only local species of trees and plants should be planted at homes, cities, our rural areas, and wherever needed.

One case in point is of Karachi, where CDGK has taken up greening the city by massive plantation of Conocarpus, which is an exotic mangrove shrub and has nothing to do with our local environment. It produces pollen same as Paper Mulberry and causes respiratory tract diseases among human besides being hostile to local vegetation. Such imported injurious trees can be easily replaced with our local trees like Amaltas, Imli Badaam and so many fruit trees that can be of both environmental benefit and also contribute to food production.

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