The Growing Relevance of Ecofeminism in India – Its implications on rural women and the environment

The Growing Relevance of Ecofeminism in India – Its implications on rural women and the environment

Sunita Narain, an environmentalist and editor of Down to Earth, says

“Women are the worst affected by environmental degradation. When we deal with the challenges of water, pollution and waste, the issues of women must be taken into account — for me, that is ecofeminism.”

Ecofeminism is not a word that one might often come across. The term was first coined by the French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne in the 1970s which recognises the intrinsic link between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the environment by the forces of male domination. How can the Ecofeminist concept apply to us on an everyday basis?

Many research studies show that, on average, women are more likely to be concerned about environmental issues than men. This environmental consciousness guides women’s shopping choices, which leads to inculcating eco-friendly habits into everyday life (which are as simple as carrying reusable bags, using a compost bin or investing in reusable sanitary products).

India has always had a culture of conservation and sustainability when it comes to the environment. There is a rich tradition of goddesses who are associated with various elements of nature such as Annapoorna who symbolises the harvest, Sita who symbolises agricultural productivity, and Ganga who represents purity and water.

While keeping all this in mind, it is important to note that one must look beyond such phrases as “motherland”, “Mother Nature”, and “Mother Earth” which regard women as being “motherly” or “nurturing” through a narrow and stereotypical lens.

In a nation that prides itself on worshipping female deities it is quite ironic that women have often been subjected to exploitation and abuse; now more than ever. Similarly, since the last few decades the environment is being exploited on an unparalleled level. According to the World Bank, between 1990 and 2016 the world cut down 1.3 million sq. km. of forests, which is larger than the size of South Africa.

A vocal proponent for Ecofeminism in India is Vandana Shiva, who is an environmental scholar-activist who speaks out against what she refers to as “capitalistic patriarchy”. She believes that both women and the environment are devalued and seen as passive or voiceless beings. The worth of nature and women are reduced to their reproductive capacities. She concludes that nature has intelligence that needs to be respected, just as the life of every girl and woman needs to be respected and protected.

Ecofeminism is a unique platform for seeking both climate justice and gender justice and putting forward a moralistic and empathetic viewpoint for the future.

Women have been at the forefront of many important environmental and climate movements:

  • The Chipko (tree hugging) movement of 1973 where women of Uttarakhand opposed illegal deforestation.
  • Medha Patkar led the Narmada Bachao Andolan which opposed the construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam that displaced dalits, tribals, farmers and women.
  • Sugathakumari is a poet and activist who led the Silent Valley Movement to protect the tropical evergreen forest of Palakkad, Kerala.

Beyond India, we find notable women figures like Wangari Maathai who launched the Green Belt Movement in Kenya to encourage afforestation and Greta Thunberg’s ‘School Strike for Climate’ which has popularised anti-climate change advocacy for the first time on an international level. According to the UNFCCC ‘Gender Composition Report’ (2019), women are underrepresented (less than 30%) in national and global climate change negotiations.

The migration of rural men to urban regions has led to feminisation of agriculture in India. While not being given an active role in decision-making, women — especially marginalised, rural women — find themselves most impacted by the changes of environmental destruction, such as fall in agricultural productivity (desertification, soil erosion, etc.), depleting ground water levels, and intensified climate change disasters like floods, droughts and cyclones.

In addition to farming, rural women are assigned traditional roles like fetching drinking water, cooking, washing and cleaning that requires availability of water resources. The ‘Composite Water Management Index’ (CWMI) report by NITI Aayog highlights that 40% of Indian population might not have access to drinking water by 2030.

How can the feminist perspective help our environmental concerns? How can the environmental movement help our feminist cause? The common experience of oppression can help inform each other and our shared struggle. It is only by changing the value system and power structure in the socio-political economic context that we can hope to empower women revisit our roots of non-violence and being ecologically mindful in our day-to-day existence.