Why women activists never get their due despite being essential to nature conservation

This Raksha Bandhan, a group of women tied red sprigs to trees in the brackish waters of the Sundarbans. These mangroves had conscientiously protected them from the ravages of cyclones Amphan and Yaas. The rakhis they tied symbolized the preservation of that bond, invoking security from the strong winds of climate change.

“We are thinking of [the trees] like brothers who will protect us from danger, ”said one woman. His sentiment echoes the patriarchal dynamic where the brother protects the sister.

A closer look at this story exposes the gender roles that inform the relationship between women activists and nature. Historically, women and nature have symbolized education, care and warmth. And as with other types of care, women are almost expected to be involved in conservation efforts and their efforts to be devalued.

These sexist stereotypes frame women’s ecological activism and dictate the space they are given.

History links women ideologically and emotionally to the environment. The relationship is a relationship of survival. They bear the primary responsibility for keeping the fire, 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.

Indian memory immediately rushes to one of the best-known female-led environmental movements in world history: the Chipko movement of the 1970s.

“This forest is our mother’s house; with all our strength, we will protect him, ”began the song of the group of women who formed the protest. Gauri Devi, with a shawl tied on her head and her sari pallu, snuggled up to her waist, the group led. It was a rebellion against the impending ecological destruction of Uttarakhand’s forest lands, but also against the exploitation of their homes, community and identity. Devi called the trees after her “maïka” (mother’s home) while defending the area against loggers.

Women have always been at the forefront of field conservation and local environmental movements. Chipko’s predecessor was another resistance in the 1730s; Nearly 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 surprising that women play a vital role in the management of natural resources at the family and community levels.

“They are closely related to nature and people and are effective managers of wildlife areas,” noted The Tribune, detailing the role of female 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 persistence of women’s voices anchors the movement. The connection between women and nature also produces results, tangible and intangible.

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Patriarchy and the environment

Rosemary Radford Reuther, a feminist scholar, points to the cultural tendency to link women to “earth, matter and nature”. In Greek mythology, for example, Gaia takes on the mantle of “mother” of all life. Nature is always portrayed as maternal love; in this, the two are believed to harbor unconditional love for their children. Associations with nature also permeate the understanding of female fertility; folk rituals around rain and drought focus especially on women and girls. The relationship also passes through language. The Hindi word for environment, for example, is “prakriti», After the goddess of creation in Hindu mythology.

However, it is these highly gendered associations that undermine women’s conservation efforts. “It’s hard to ignore attitudes of ‘caring’ and ‘consideration’ as associated with more introverted and gentler roles. For the patriarchy, take care of the weaker sex ”, explains Kanchi Kohli, environmental activist and researcher. In the same sense, in his book, Sister species: women, animals and social justiceLisa Kemmerer also points out how women and non-human nature are “devalued alongside their supposed opposites – men and civilization / culture”.

Compassion does not exist unlike reason. Gentleness, nourishment and care are markers of resilience. And there is often nothing “soft” about women’s connection to the environment. Foraging for food or collecting water is backbreaking work. With the climate crisis and the acceleration of mining, it is women who travel the many additional kilometers to fetch water. These narratives are overlooked when discussing women’s activism in favor of mind-boggling stereotypes.

As with everything the patriarchy associates with women, their environmental activism is also rejected. Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson has been called a “vengeful,” “hysterical” and “witch” for attacking the pesticide lobby in the United States. role.

Or think of Greta Thunberg, who, after being named Person of the Year by TIME magazine, was invited to “relax” by President Donald Trump. The “hysterical woman” trope keeps activists from being taken seriously. Their work is ignored, their knowledge devalued and their identity compromised.

A typical example is an exchange in the biopic Erin Brockovich, where Julia Roberts plays the American ecologist who attacked an American company contaminating drinking water in California. She is berated for taking her activism “too personally”. To which Brokovich replies: “Not personal? It’s my time, my sweat, and my time away from my kids – if it’s not personal, I don’t know what it is.

People are losing their homes, denied livelihoods, survival, safety and security – these are deep issues. Their activism winds through housing, livelihoods, stability and identity.

Women are meant to be activists but not decision makers

Women have been rooted in narratives of local environmental activism, resistance to both natural exploitation and patriarchal notions. Despite this and the fact that women are the most vulnerable to climate degradation, they are systematically excluded from official climate discussions.

“Too often, non-binary Dalit trans people and Dalit women bear the burden of being the bearers of wisdom and traditions, without any recognition of their role in preserving culture. We are not simply the carriers of culture. We are also alchemists who transform it, ”noted Rachelle Bharathi Chandran in The News Minute.

And yet, at the political level, women are clearly absent. In March of this year, a study noted that systemic and consistent gender discrimination excluded women from conservation activities. According to a 2015 study in Uganda, 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 that women around the world are taking on more climate responsibilities, but their role in land use decision-making is symbolic, suggesting an asymmetric division of labor. There is also no reliable data left to measure women’s engagement in climate change policies.

The result is that women are often described as “buffers” for climate change mitigation.

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The environmental struggle is a feminist struggle

We cannot speak of the defense of nature in a disparate manner when the environmental impact has always been gendered, castist and anchored in the dynamics of social power.

It is the fallacy at the heart of the discourse. The ecological struggle against climate change is seen as distinct from the feminist struggle against patriarchal oppression. But the climate crisis is a feminist struggle.

“What we’re seeing in environmental movements is an extension of how society is stratified between castes, classes and genders,” says Kanchi Kohli. “… Assimilating the nurturing roles of women in nature conservation can be a reminder of the deep roots of patriarchy.

In addition, environmental and feminist issues have interconnected roots. The same “dispossession-oriented capitalism has created an environmental crisis and exacerbated the patriarchal crisis,” Asmita Bhutani noted in Jamhoor.

Women in tribal areas and other oppressed communities are suffering from excessive depletion of forests and increasing pollution. Cases of violence against adivasi women – in the form of unfair compensation for the land, crackdown on activists and moral policing of women’s labor – have increased, according to reports from the National Crime Records Bureau.

Additionally, for women who have historically been denied ownership of land, forest land is personal. Kashipur tribal women of Odisha, protesting against industrialization and mining activities, said, “Even if we don’t have our own land… green forests will give us roots, mangoes, mahua, salt leaves, flowers and seeds, broom and firewood.

Environmental issues therefore directly and indirectly impact women financially. Any threat to the environment, through deforestation or displacement, has an impact on women’s livelihoods and identity. “Biodiversity loss is also a disproportionate burden on women and girls … which reduces the time they can devote to income-generating activities and education,” noted the International Institute for the Environment. and development in a blog.


As we move forward, we are faced with the question of whether gender recognition strengthens the action of women activists or harms the cause by locking them into stereotypes. Kohli does not believe that there is a clear and simple resolution. “But fostering a culture that rejects domination and encourages deliberation can ensure the building of an inclusive and equitable movement,” she notes.

This requires a recalibration of gender traits. “We need to integrate the lens of justice into these movements,” Kohli notes. It involves questioning the division of labor, centering the need for empathy, increasing access to resources, and examining female caste and religious controls. There is room for agency and fairness.

“Trying to sing a song again is the forest bird with the broken wings,” writes Sugathakumari, a Malayali activist, in the dark poem Oru Pattu Pinnneyum. The bird, symbolizing women, sits in the shade of the rain and the trees. The bird with broken wings mourns the loss of its home in the face of an ecological assault.

Like the bird, the women who hug the trees mourn the loss of their home, their free will, and a part of themselves.