Why Women Activists Never Get Their Due Despite Being Critical to Nature Conservation
This Raksha Bandhan, a group of women tied red strands to the trees in the brackish waters of the Sundarbans. These mangroves had dutifully protected them through ravaging cyclones Amphan and Yaas. The rakhis they tied symbolized preserving this bond, invoking safety against the fierce winds of climate change.
“We think of [the trees] as brothers who will protect us from danger,” one woman said. Her sentiment echoes the patriarchal dynamic where the brother protects the sister.
A closer look at this story lays bare the gender roles that inform the relationship between women activists and nature. Historically, both women and nature have symbolized nurture, care, and warmth. And as with other kinds of caregiving, women are almost expected to be involved in conservation efforts and their efforts devalued.
These gendered stereotypes frame the ecological activism of women and dictate how much space they are accorded within.
History ties women ideologically and emotionally to the environment. The relationship is one of survival. They bear the primary responsibility of keeping the fire burning, feeding the family, fetching water, and collecting forest materials for sale. The natural ecosystem and its life-preserving rewards become an extension of the female identity.
The Indian memory immediately darts to one of the most well-known women-led environmental movements in global history: the Chipko movement of the 1970s.
“This forest is our mother’s home; with all our strength, we will protect it,” came the chant from the group of women who formed the protest. Gauri Devi, with a shawl tied to her head and her saree’s pallu, tucked to her waist, led the group. This was a rebellion against the imminent ecological destruction of Uttarakhand forest land but also against the exploitation of their homes, community, and identity. Devi referred to the trees as her “maika” (mother’s home) when defending the area against loggers.
Women have always been at the forefront of on-ground conservation and environmental grassroots movements. The predecessor to Chipko was another resistance in the 1730s; almost 363 members of the Bishnoi tribe in Rajasthan were beheaded as they hugged trees to protest their felling. It was women who led the movement — Amrita Devi and her daughters.
It is not unsurprising that women play a critical role in managing natural resources on family and community levels.
“They closely connect with nature and the people and are efficient managers of the wildlife areas,” The Tribune noted while detailing the role of women forest officers in the country.
Cassandra Nazareth, an environmental activist, notes in her work with tribal women in the Aarey region that the strength and perseverance in women’s voices anchor the movement. The connection between women and nature also yields results, tangible and intangible.
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Patriarchy and the environment
Rosemary Radford Reuther, a feminist scholar, points out the cultural tendency to link women with “earth, matter, and nature.” In Greek mythology, for instance, Gaia takes the mantle of “mother” of all life. Nature is always portrayed similar to motherly love; in that, both are meant to harbor unconditional love for their children. Associations with nature also seep into understanding women’s fertility; folk rituals around rain and drought center women and girls in particular. The relationship flows through language too. The Hindi word for environment, for instance, is “prakriti,” after the goddess of creation in Hindu mythology.
However, it is these very gendered associations that hurt women’s efforts in conservation. “It is hard to ignore ‘caring’ and ‘nurturing’ attitudes as one associated with inward-looking and softer roles. For patriarchy, caring is for the weaker gender,” says Kanchi Kohli, an environmental activist, and researcher. Along similar lines, in her book, Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice, Lisa Kemmerer also points out how both women and nonhuman nature are “devalued alongside their assumed opposites – men and civilization/culture.”
Compassion doesn’t exist in sharp contrast to reason. Softness, nourishment, and care are markers of resilience. And there is often nothing “soft” about women’s connection to the environment. The act of foraging food or collecting water is back-breaking work. With the climate crisis and accelerated mining, women are the ones who walk the many extra kilometers to fetch water. These narratives are left out when talking of women’s activism in favor of tree-hugging stereotypes.
As with anything patriarchy associates with women, their environmental activism too is dismissed. Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson was called “vengeful,” “hysterical,” and a “witch” for taking on the pesticide lobby in the U.S. In India, Adivasi women who participated in environmental movements were swiftly branded as “witches” to delegitimize their role.
Or think of Greta Thunberg, who, after being named TIME Magazine’s Person Of the Year, was told to “chill” by President Donald Trump. The “hysterical woman” trope keeps activists from being taken seriously. Their labor is ignored, knowledge devalued, and identity compromised.
A typical example is an exchange in the biographical movie Erin Brockovich, where Julia Roberts plays the American environmentalist who took on an American company contaminating drinking water in California. She’s chided for taking her activism “too personally.” To which, Brokovich answers, “Not personal? That is my time, my sweat, and my time away from my kids — if that’s not personal, I don’t know what is.”
People are losing homes, being denied livelihood and survival, safety and security — these are profound matters. Their activism meanders through shelter, livelihood, stability, and identity.
Women are expected to be activists but not decision-makers
Women have been anchored to narratives of local environmental activism, a resistance against both natural exploitation and patriarchal notions. Despite this and the fact that women are the most vulnerable to climate degradation, they are systemically left out of official climate conversation.
“Too often, Dalit trans-non-binary people and Dalit women bear the burden of being the carriers of wisdom and traditions, with no acknowledgment of their role in preserving the culture. We are not simply the bearers of the culture. We are also alchemists who transform it,” Rachelle Bharathi Chandran noted in The News Minute.
And yet, at a policy level, women are conspicuously absent. In March this year, a study noted systemic and consistent gender discrimination excluded women from conservation activities. According to a 2015 Uganda-based research, women are less likely to receive key information on climate dynamics despite noticing the impact on water availability and agricultural productivity more than men.
Reports show women globally are taking on more climate responsibility, yet their role in decision-making regarding land use is tokenistic — suggesting a skewed division of labor. There also remains no reliable data to measure women’s engagement in climate change policies.
The result is women are often described as “shock absorbers” for climate change mitigation.
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Environmental struggle is a feminist struggle
One cannot talk about advocating for nature in a disparate manner when environmental impact has always been gendered, casteist, and ingrained within social power dynamics.
This is the fallacy at the heart of the discourse. The ecological struggle against climate change is seen as separate from the feminist struggle against patriarchal oppression. But climate crisis is a feminist struggle.
“What we see in environmental movements is an extension of how society is stratified across caste, class, and gender,” says Kanchi Kohli. “…equating the nurturing roles to women in nature conservation can be a reminder of the deep rootedness of patriarchy.”
Moreover, environmental and feminist issues have interconnected roots. The same “dispossession-driven capitalism has created an environmental crisis and exacerbated the patriarchal crisis,” Asmita Bhutani noted in Jamhoor.
The women from tribal areas and other oppressed communities suffer due to excessive forest depletion and rising pollution. Incidences of violence against Adivasi women — in the form of unjust compensation for land, repression of female activists, and moral policing of women’s labor — have increased, according to reports by the National Crime Records Bureau.
Further, for women who have historically been denied ownership of land, forest land is personal. The tribal women of Odisha’s Kashipur, protesting the industrializing and mining activities, said, “even if we don’t have our own land… the green forests will give us roots, mangoes, mahua, sal leaves, flowers and seeds, hill brooms, and firewood.”
Environmental issues thus directly and indirectly impact women financially. Any threat to the environment, through deforestation or displacement, impacts women’s livelihood and identity. “Biodiversity loss also poses a disproportionate burden for women and girls… which reduces the time they can spend on income-generating activities and education,” the International Institute for Environment and Development noted in a blog.
As we advance, we are faced with whether acknowledging gender strengthens women activists’ agency or harms the cause by boxing them within stereotypes. Kohli doesn’t believe there’s a clean, pat resolution. “But encouraging a culture that rejects dominance and encourages deliberation may ensure inclusive and equitable movement building,” she notes.
This requires a recalibration of gender traits. “We have to bring in the justice lens within these movements,” Kohli notes. This involves questioning the division of labor, centering the need for empathy, increasing access to resources, and looking at women’s caste and religious controls. There lies room for agency and equity.
“Trying to sing a song again is the/broken-winged bird of the forest,” Sugathakumari, a Malayali activist, writes in the somber poem Oru Pattu Pinnneyum. The bird, symbolizing women, sits in the shadow of rain and trees. The broken-winged bird laments the loss of its home in the face of an ecological onslaught.
Like the bird, women who hug trees lament the loss of their homes, agency, and parts of themselves.