Ecological Justice For Women

Aug 31, 2012

As Indonesia’s rural poor are increasingly threatened by dispossession, is it time to adopt a more radical agenda for women and the environment?

1259 Fisherwomen are hard-hit by environmental degradation in West Sumatra. PHOTO: Rebecca ElmhirstDuring International Women’s Day this year, women representing four of Indonesia’s leading environmental and agrarian NGOs called for women across the archipelago to unite and demand a more just and environmentally sustainable economic order. In a joint statement, representatives from WALHI (the Indonesian Forum for the Environment), the Indonesian Peasants Union (SPI), Indonesian Green Union (SHI) and People's Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA) argued that as women bear the brunt of environmental problems, it is women who should take the lead in preventing or solving them.

While women’s NGOs have tended to focus on issues such as health, economic empowerment and domestic violence, this statement is indicative of a new effort to link women with environmental and social justice agendas. This new alliance is inspired by the radical values of ecofeminism, according to which the exploitation of women and the environment is inextricably linked to the capitalist economic system. But at the same time this is just one of an array of competing agendas currently being promoted in Indonesia which attempt to connect women with the environment in a variety of ways.

Women and environmental crises

WALHI, SPI, SHI and KIARA’s joint statement echoes successive reports documenting how women have been disproportionately affected by recent natural disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2006 Java earthquake, the eruption of Merapi and the West Sumatra earthquake, both of which occurred in 2010. Beyond these large-scale and widely publicised disasters, low income women have also had to contend with the effects of climate change including more unpredictable weather events, especially drought and floods.

There is a general consensus that low income women’s vulnerability to these events stems from their role within the household, which involves a close dependence on natural resources. In most parts of rural Indonesia, women are responsible for carting water, collecting firewood and fodder for livestock and for other agricultural activities. The impact of natural disasters and environmental degradation make these activities difficult, if not impossible. Recently, during an exceptionally prolonged dry season, women in Lampung province had to walk long distances to collect water from a borehole owned by a wealthy family in the village, as their usual supplies had dried up.

Nor are low income women in urban areas spared the effects of natural disasters. In coastal cities such as Semarang, women who are employed as domestic workers are responsible for the burdensome additional task of clearing up when floods and tidal surges inundate the houses of their employers.

Including women in environmental management

1260 Women's use of the environment is not the same as decision-making power. Photo: Rebecca ElmhirstRecognising that women are particularly impacted by environmental degradation and disasters, some activists have argued that this means women need to be included as active participants in environmental management interventions. Proponents of this position argue that it is important to link gender mainstreaming efforts, women’s empowerment and initiatives to bring about more sustainable environmental management.

Recognising women’s prominent role in household water use, water and sanitation programs in particular are starting to make women’s participation a priority objective. But there also continue to be failures in this sector. A recent public works project in East Java constructed water supply tanks some distance from the village, with the result that women were unable to carry water to their homes and had to pay motorbike taxis (ojek) to help them. In this instance failure to consider women’s voices not only compromised the project goal of improving access to water, but also reinforced the women’s status as dependent on men.

Certainly including women’s voices in environmental management interventions is complex. Women often have no power to make key decisions about the resources they use. This partly explains a widely reported lack of engagement by low-income women in natural resource management initiatives in rural areas. Efforts to strengthen women’s empowerment in natural resource projects are further complicated by low-income women’s lack of time to attend meetings or to engage in collective work tasks. And conservative social values make it difficult for them to speak up in public forums, with the result that these women often prefer to leave it to educated, urban-based elite women to speak on their behalf.

Individualising responsibility

One approach to expanding women’s control over environmental resources is to give them individual title to land, based on the premise that formalised access to land gives women greater bargaining power within the household and community. It also opens up women’s access to credit and other forms of state support, which is often conditional on demonstrating control over assets. Although Indonesian laws allow women equal opportunity to obtain land title, in practice land titling schemes that formalise existing arrangements have tended to grant titles in the name of the household head, who is usually male.

In its scheme to grant land title to households in post-tsunami Aceh, the World Bank has sought to address this issue by raising community awareness about women’s land rights and training the National Land Agency (BPN) staff who are responsible for implementing the program. The World Bank claims that around 28 per cent of registrations through the Reconstruction of Aceh Land Administration System (RALAS) scheme have been issued to women, either individually or jointly with their husbands. Noting that securing women’s land rights is important for addressing women’s vulnerability and fundamental to rebuilding sustainable communities, the organisation showcased this project as an example of good practice in addressing gender concerns in disaster risk management.