Consentia on Multidisciplinary Research

Position of Women in the Sustainable Development Debate: A Feminist Standpoint

India. 23 year old student gang raped,[1] mutilated and left to die- one of the thousand rape cases this year. Afghanistan. Bibi Aisha’s nose cut off by her abusive husband in an attempt to leave a forced marriage [2] – one of the 57% women married before the age of 16[3]. Pakistan. 150 acid attacks a year [4] and hundreds murdered in honour killing. Sudan. 40 lashes for wearing trousers[5] apart from forced trafficking and domestic servicing. South Africa. 37% men admit to rape[6]. Saudi Arabia. Women struggle to access museums, libraries, public streets and even hospitals. Democratic Republic of Congo. 48 women raped every hour.[7]
Can a society which omits to establish the most basal inter gender equality; actually evolve a balance between its consumption and environmental degradation in conformity with the fundamental of sustainable development?
Feminist objectivity makes room for surprises and ironies at the heart of all knowledge production.[8] But it is the International Sustainable Development Debate which rendered an opportunity to refer to feminist perspectives and provided for an abridgement of gender gap. Not only does a feminist perspective help a woman locate, understand and strengthen her relationship with the environment, it also enables her to understand her position and responsibilities in the 21st century play for power in the development discourse. It is impossible to formulate a completely consensual, righteous or politically appropriate feminist perspective towards tackling the complex problem of sustainable development. However, this debate doesn’t seek to bridge differences but tries to use the very diversity of opinions to strengthen a feminist position.
A contemporary subject like Women’s Studies helps create a legitimate standpoint for women in the Sustainable Development Debate by delving into the inter-relationship of the receptacles of politics, sociology, economics, history and media with the feminist landscape. Women’s studies basically help propagate a combination of conjectural and methodological analysis of gender, race, and sexuality at a transnational level. Thus, this subject helps strengthen the societal role of women, making them consequently imperative and indispensable towards the process of sustainable development.
In the past three decades, socio-political and legal changes have challenged traditional constructions of femininity, especially those related to women’s work. [9] When we talk of Sustainable Development, we connote a process by which people satisfy their needs and improve their quality of life in the present while safeguarding the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. For most people, a better quality of life means a higher standard of living, usually measured in terms of income level and uses of resources and technology. [10]
But even while trying to universally achieve the objective of sustainable development by fixing the complex problems of scarcity of earth’s resources, maximizing growth as well as ensuring equitable distribution of wealth; one simply cannot ignore the specific environments and individual idiosyncrasies being dealt with in the desired abstemious cycle of consumption and output. Albeit undisputed that investment in economic assets is indispensible in order to ensure sustainable growth, a feminist perspective helps bring notice to the ecological and human dimensions which are also key to growth and development. This also stands as a major ground for criticism of Daly’s theory of a steady-state-economy [11] and its
relationship to the ecosystem wherein it is difficult to establish biophysical and ethio-social limits to growth within the ecosystem. In fact, the attempt to express economics in the form of mathematical models gives it a mathematical sophistication which is deeply reductionist and totally inadequate for explaining the ambiguities and contradictions of the complex process of development. [12]
In the same breath, it is imperative that gender relations be opened up to the explanation of the social reality which stands component to Sustainable development. A commix of Economic, Environmental and Social objectives is congenital and indispensible to the Principle of Equity, which is the very foundation of Sustainable Development model. It is a myth that ecological degradation and the problem of climate change are devoid of any gender related aspect, for it is the women and children whose consumption and livelihood stand to be the worst affected by natural disasters and fluctuating commodity prices.
Within across the raging economic disparities between the haves and have-nots, the woman stands deprived, suffering and disadvantaged to a greater degree than the man, owing to her impoverished societal status. When decoded, the entire economic methodology and language reveals a certain degree of sexism embedded at its grassroot. The 21st century world moving towards a sustainably developed society faces a strong paradox- Freedom of Choice in terms of an individual’s access to resources and opportunities to consume within a society don’t stand equated between the two genders. In the case of Hurricane Katrina in the United States, for example, those who were hardest hit and had the least ability to recover included women, who represent the majority of the poor. [13] Yet, the process of ubiquitous establishment of Sustainable Development, while aiming to transcend culture, class and environmental concerns, omits to subjoin gender relations as a factor for determination of individual economic behaviour.
It is the woman in the household that works, produces, reproduces and also determines the field of investment. The diminution of the woman’s position in a household depends on the culture it exists in, and consequently weighs her role in the sustainable development debate. It is in acquiescence with these very cultures that a circuitous yet devious solution to this problem arises. Assimilation of the Principal of Equity in terms of providing women with equal access to resources will help them burgeon in the economic environments of their local communities.
Empowerment of women is crucial when it comes to change and new concepts to get states to act for the environment and sustainable development. [14] World Bank studies show that development strategies focusing on gender equality see stronger economic growth than gender-neutral strategies.[15] Women, world over, are significant sources of sustainable change whose unutilized potential must be harnessed into forming an exponentially sustainable society.
Just as we strive to achieve a bond between the sustainable environmental and social movements, constructive alliances between the feminists and environmental economists are the key to efficient policy making. Women are not just ‘victims of a larger degree’ when it comes to environmental degradation but also stark catalysts to promotion of sustainable development theories. The definition of development essentially encompasses gender equity, secured livelihoods and ecological sustainability.
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development [16] in June 2012 too underscored to recognize and promote the role of women in sustainable development by way of investment in the
household, family planning and sustainable goals. Albeit equivalently important, empowerment and employment of women is a gargantuan task in itself. Of the 1.3 billion people that live on below poverty level (less than one dollar per day) standards, 70% are women – needing investment in basic healthcare, education and employment. Even from the perspective of a woman engaged in any workfield, psychological as well as physical extensities have a characteristic consequence in the form of discrimination, harassment, violence, etc.
Another one of the most vital concerns of environmental scientists, population explosion leading to heightened levels of consumption can push the world towards an unsustainable mode of lifestyle in times when resource preservation is not just imperative but critical. It is here that the woman, the bearer of population, becomes the catalysing prodigy of implementation of sustainable policies with respect to a controlled population growth.
The women of Brazil and India do not have the decisive authority as to when and if they want to bear a child. Marriage as well as childbirth is a coerced phenomenon in economically unstable families in these countries. Today, more than 200 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception. Research shows that if we were to meet women’s needs to plan the number and spacing of their pregnancies, population growth would slow and global carbon emissions would decrease by between 8-15 percent—the equivalent of stopping all current deforestation.[17]
The World Bank has introduced a cardinal two fold strategy to actualise and culminate upon the fundamental of increased investment in women world over. It involves creation and amelioration of a market space for women, in which their participation both as suppliers and end users is encouraged. This methodology is not just mere fulfilment of corporate social responsibility but an avenue for increased profits. Countries with family-oriented practices and government funded healthcare have both more working women and higher birth rates than those without gender equality policies, an important consideration for countries with aging populations. For example, in indigenous societies women are custodians of traditional knowledge relating to resource management; providing access to modern technology presents a perfect opportunity for both empowering local women and encouraging sustainable development.[18]
The TICAD initiatives in Africa [19] have strived to amplify women’s marginalized concurrence in the rich mineral and mining sectors of Africa along with intensification of their participation in financial and entrepreneurial activities, trade cycles, demand and supply forces as well as institutions for capacity. Not only will such initiatives and approaches result in dynamic productivity and exponential growth dividends, but also help disentangle the societal constraints as well as promote environmental benefits.
The Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women emphasize women’s participation in national and international ecosystem management and control of environment degradation.[20] Several conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and conventions of ILO and UNESCO have also been adopted to end gender-based discrimination and ensure women access to land and other resources, education and safe and equal employment.[21]
Conclusively, a feminist outlook attempts to evolve the position of women in the society, empower them and assigns them a key role in establishing a sustainable bond between the environment and development. At a regional level, women can help execute integrated sustainable development operations and on a broader level, help promote a judicious use of scarce resources in an international community. A conscious comprehension of gender equality and formulation of women empowerment schemes is thus an indispensible characteristic of the implementation of sustainable development policies. The same should thus be based on women as the key performers and harbingers of sustainable change, disaster resilience and durable peace.
[1] December 16 Gang rape case: Chronology of events. (2013, September 14). Retrieved November 19, 2013, from
[2]Baker, Aryn. (2010, August 9). Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban. Retrieved from,9171,2007407,00.html
[3] Asian Centre for Human Rights. (2008, August 1). South Asia Human Rights Index – 2008. Retrieved from
[4] Ahmed, Beenish. (2013, April 3). In Pakistan, Women are the Target of Disfiguring Acid Attacks. Retrieved from
[5] Gedalyahu, Tzvi Ben. (2010, January 22). A Woman’s Life in Muslim Sudan: 40 Lashes for Wearing Trousers. Retrieved from
[6] Study: More than 1 in 3 South African men admit to rape. (2010, November 26). Retrieved November 20, 2013 from
[7] Stop Rape in Democratic Republic of Congo. (n.d.). Retrieved from
[8] Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The science question in feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Yvonna S. Lincoln & Norman K. Denzin (3rd ed.), Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in a Handkerchief (pp. 593-594). Retrieved from
[9] Jurik, Nancy & Susan E., Martin. (1996). Doing Justice, Doing Gender: Women in Legal and Criminal Justice Occupations (Women in the Criminal Justice System). (pp. 216).
[10] Population and Sustainable Development. (n.d.). Retrieved from
[11] A ‘steady state economy’ is an economy with stable or mildly fluctuating size. The term typically refers to a national economy, but it can also be applied to a local, regional, or global economy. An economy can reach a steady state after a period of growth or after a period of downsizing or degrowth. To be sustainable, a steady state economy may not exceed ecological limits. Retrieved from
[12] Harcourt, Wendy. (1994). Feminist Perspectives on Sustainable Development. (pp. 14)
[13] Gender and Sustainable Development: Maximising the Economic, Social and Environmental Role of Women. (n.d.). Retrieved from
[14] Pontes, Nadia. (2012, June 21). Strong Women are the key to sustainable development. Retrieved from
[15] M. Scholz, Katie. (2012, October 4). The role of women in sustainable economic development. Retrieved from
[16] A Resolution, namely A/RES/66/288 – Gender equality and women’s empowerment, adopted by United Nations body at United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. Retrieved from
[17] Sheffield, Jill & Nierenberg, Danielle. (2012, June 24). The role of women in sustainable development. Retrieved from
[18] M. Scholz, Katie. (2012, October 4). The role of women in sustainable economic development. Retrieved from
[19] Tokyo International Conference on African Development. (n.d.). Retrieved from
[20] The UN’s Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi represented the culmination of ten years of work on gender empowerment. The Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies, adopted by the conference, provides a blueprint for action until 2000 that link the promotion and maintenance of peace to the eradication of violence against women throughout the broad spectrum of society. The greatest achievement of the Nairobi conference is that, despite the acute differences dividing the 157 member states, representatives were able to find a common ground on all the issues addressed and unanimously adopt the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies. In December 1985, the UN General Assembly released a document on the Implementation of the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women which can be read on
[21] Agenda 21: Chapter 24. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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