Fight for survival
Rural women bear the brunt of the problems caused by environmental degradation. So it is not surprising to find that they are trying to set things right.
Taking charge: Environmental degradation has a direct bearing on the lives of women. Photo: V. Sudershan
"The new insight provided by rural women in the Third World is that women and Nature are associated not in passivity but in creativity and the maintenance of life"
WORK on women and the environment in the Third World has focused on women as "victims" of environmental degradation. The reason is simple enough: in a typical agrarian economy, any form of environmental degradation has a direct bearing on the lives of women and undermines their "right to live".
In the developing world, women are the major producers. They participate in activities like farming, fishing, selling the produce and are also responsible for domestic tasks like cooking, gathering wood for fuel and fodder for cattle, nurturing and caring for children and the elderly members. Women interact with the environment to meet the daily subsistence needs and are, therefore, most affected when their immediate environment is altered.
Mobilising to fight
The two case studies under focus are a typical example of women mobilising to fight against environmental degradation. The first focuses on the reckless destruction of the forest cover and the second on quarrying and mining activities; practices that undermined and challenged their right to live and their consequent "fight for survival".
Annabel Rodda in Women and Environment is of the view that, "the women who participate in and lead ecology movement in countries like India are not speaking merely as victims. Their voices are the voices of liberation and transformation which provide new categories of thought and new exploratory direction".
The hill economy is termed the "money order" economy due to large-scale out-migration of men in search of employment. This, in turn, has resulted in the increasing feminisation and senilisation of the hill economy and society. This trend has dramatically compounded the toil and hardship faced by the hill women.
Nestled in the Kumaon Ranges, Chaikuni Bora is a small hamlet in Champawat District, Uttranchal.
Like any typical household in the Kumaon hills, most households in this particular village are migrant households. In the absence of most able-bodied male members, the burden of running the household, tending the land and cattle is shouldered entirely by the women. The timber mafia of the adjacent town, Champawat, took advantage of this situation and thus began the saga of insensible destruction of the forest cover around the village.
As the forest cover declined, there was a huge fuel wood and fodder crisis. Destruction of forest cover also affected the volume of water discharged from the springs, the only source of water in the village. This meant trekking miles for water, fuel wood and fodder. The lengthier forage time resulted in immense physical exhaustion and enormous hardships.
The depleted forest cover, home to many wild animals, exposed the villagers and the livestock to their unwelcome visits as the animals strayed into the village in search of shelter and food. All this led to a desperate situation and called for immediate action.
Kalawati Pant, on her own initiative, motivated and mobilised the women of the village to fight against the senseless felling of trees. The women organised themselves into a mahila samuh, which would guard the access points to the forest around the village. They cordoned off the forest limits against any unwarranted and dubious visits. The axes and daratis of those who came with the intention of felling trees were confiscated.
Due to these efforts, illegal felling was stalled and the forest cover rejuvenated. The mahila samuh is still active and jointly shares the responsibility of guarding the forests from illegal felling.
The second case relates to Pithoragarh and Bageshwar districts where illegal quarrying is rampant. Mining activities have altered the ecosystem and destroyed the natural environment.
The naοve and ignorant villagers agreed to lease their land to the contractors for short-term gains. The dust from the mining site is dispersed in the air, leading to respiratory and health-related problems. The dust particles also settle on the vegetation and farm plantations affecting and retarding growth of produce. The water discharge is also affected and, as a result, most villages face acute water shortage.
Quarrying also renders the land barren and useless for future cultivation (something the villagers are not told earlier). The pits are not filled up and when rainwater fills them, the land surrounding the pits just caves in.
Here again women bear the brunt of hardships. These factors mobilised the women to fight against illegal mining and their quest is still on.
Depletion of natural resources and the degradation of environment have a direct bearing on the time and energies of women. With depleting resources they have to trek longer distances for fuel wood, fodder and water collection.
A large proportion of the girls are forced to discontinue their studies in order to help their mothers in the collection process or in domestic work.
Vandana Shiva in Staying Alive examines and correlates the position of women in relation to Nature. She links the violation and depletion of Nature with the violation and marginalisation of women. She believes that every area of human activity and development marginalises, and therefore burdens, both women and Nature because both are intrinsically linked.
According to her, the women's ecological struggle is aimed simultaneously "at liberating Nature from ceaseless exploitation and themselves from limitless marginalisation." (Vandana Shiva, Women, Ecology and Development).
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