A woman in rural Cambodia waters her home garden.
Despite women’s high level of involvement in agriculture in the Asia-Pacific region, less than one in five women hold secure tenure to their farm land. Photo by Pin Pravalprukskul, SEI

On 8 September 2017, environment ministers in the Asia Pacific region recognized the need for increased mainstreaming of gender in development, saying that gender inequality is a significant barrier to sustainable development. At the meeting, government representatives and experts from South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, including SEI senior research fellow Dr. Bernadette Resurrección, identified the most pressing gender issues in energy, agriculture, and other environment-related sectors that call for attention. But critical gender concerns still remain unaddressed.

“A growing body of evidence highlights that the success of efforts to move toward a resource-efficient and pollution-free Asia Pacific, and of the 2030 Agenda as a whole, depends on reducing persistent inequalities and bridging gender gaps,” said Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, on the need for this discussion.

The event also launched the first report of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) that maps out the intersections between gender and environment in the spheres of food security, agriculture, energy, water, fisheries and forestry, and proposes necessary policy interventions.

Women in energy poverty and enterprise

Women bear the brunt of energy poverty across the Asia Pacific region, where over 450 million people have no access to electricity, according to the ESCAP report.

“Many rural women in South Asia are responsible for cooking, collecting fuel wood and making cow dung cakes. So they inhale the smoke emitted from these biomass fuels,” explained Dr. Muhammad Khurshid, the Director General of the inter-governmental South Asia Co-operative Environment Program. He sees the expansion of biogas technology in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan as an effective intervention that reduces the burden on women to collect fuels while decreasing indoor air pollution, improving hygiene and producing organic fertilizer for farms.

Women have also had a role to play in increasing energy access. In Fiji, a government initiative has expanded electrification to remote areas by replacing kerosene and benzene lamps with solar-powered lighting. But the program faced a shortage of technicians to fix and maintain the systems, many of which had broken down.

To address the problem, older women in Fiji and other South Pacific countries were recruited to join the “Grandmamas” training program to become solar energy technicians in their rural villages. “They are the technicians on-site and they are marvelous. They’re very good at weaving, so soldering small things together is not a problem for them. They are mature and reliable,” commented Hon. Lorna Eden, Assistant Minister for Local Government, Housing and Environment of Fiji on the women who have improved energy access in their communities. “They have alleviated a big problem.”

Research from SEI also shows that women are increasingly participating in renewable energy enterprises. However, they face gender-related constraints such as restricted access to capital for expanding their businesses, compared to men.

During the discussion, Dr. Resurrección noted that there are still large blind spots regarding energy poverty and its disproportionate impact on women. “Access to clean energy will improve the welfare of their households and opportunities to upgrade their lives and realize their aspirations.”

“Resource grabbing” hurts rural women and communities

The ESCAP report highlights that despite women’s high level of involvement in agriculture in the Asia-Pacific region, less than one in five women hold secure tenure to their farm land. An audience member from Malaysia raised the example of the expansion of oil palm displacing rural women and indigenous peoples in her country. She noted, however, that the oil palm companies were receiving carbon credits for their activities.

“This goes to show that what is environmentally sustainable does not automatically mean that it is socially and gender inclusive, and just,” affirmed Dr. Resurrección.

Occurrences of “resource grabbing”, where land or water resources used by rural communities are taken over by powerful commercial interests, are being uncovered as a result of biofuel development and other types of “green projects”. These large-scale investments done in the name of sustainability, such as renewable energy, biodiversity conservation, and carbon sequestration projects, are affecting smallholders and the rural poor. Apart from losing their land rights, they are also losing their livelihoods and being compelled to do involuntary or undesirable forms of labor. Dr. Resurrección remarked that the question, now, is how they are coping with these challenges.

An often-cited solution to the issue of resource grabbing is to increase women’s participation” in decision making during project planning. “In fact, they are already participating,” Dr. Resurrección said. “It’s just not reaching the level where crucial decisions on infrastructure, agriculture and green growth initiatives are discussed and made. This is a gap that needs to be addressed.”

Sex-disaggregated data is on the way, but is not enough

Sri Lanka’s Director of International Relations from the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, Ms. Deepa Liyanage, stressed that the lack of data differentiating between women and men’s socioeconomic characteristics, roles and contributions is “a major bottle neck” in designing gender-responsive environmental policies. To address this, the Sri Lankan government is putting in place gender mainstreaming committees to collect sex-disaggregated data, alongside introducing gender budgets and equality principles in line ministry operation. Similar strides have been made in other countries in the region to disaggregate data according to gender, which will help in revealing the inequalities that exist.

Dr. Resurrección pushed for governments to go beyond the collection of sex-disaggregated data. “They need to also examine and address the drivers of those gender inequalities, for policies to be truly transformative,” she said.

Reform in environmental professions needed

Despite the many implemented and proposed measures for reducing gender inequality in environment and sustainable development, one fundamental and much-needed change has been left unspoken. That is, to achieve true gender equality in environmental fields, environmental actors need to be willing to change their ways of thinking and working.

Those who are leading the gender mainstreaming effort in environment organizations – whether in government, civil society, or non-government organizations – find it difficult to reach across subject area silos. This is because people in environmental professions have usually undergone technical training in hard and engineering sciences that traditionally bracket out gender and social issues.

Dr. Resurrección asserted that: “In such a scenario, gender will never be fully mainstreamed until the whole training component is restructured and reformed. And in the end, we will continue to work within our own intellectual silos.”