The Women's Agenda

by Robert Weissman

RIO DE JANEIRO - "Women have the power to make change, to transform the earth," said Susanna George of the Asian and Pacific Development Centre in Malaysia.

"The women's agenda should be the global agenda because we recognize what all of the issues are with a sort of truthfulness that a lot of people aren't allowed because they are caught up in systems" of power, she added.

 These were some of the central messages to emerge from the women's tent, the site of Planeta Femea, a week and a half of meetings, debates and discussions among women at the Global Forum, the non-governmental conference held parallel to the official Earth Summit. Organized under the rubric of the Women's International Policy Action Committee (IPAC), a women's group made up of 54 women from 31 countries, the women's tent housed discussions on environmental and developmental issues ranging from biotechnology to militarism to the Third World debt to population policy. The women's events were the best organized and most geographically balanced and topically inclusive of all the events held at the Global Forum.

 Global Forum participants stressed the importance of the networking that took place at the conference, in part because it was not clear what else they would accomplish in Rio. That networking, particularly between activists from Northern and Southern countries, was most evident in the women's tent. Chief Bisi Ogounleye of Nigeria expressed her appreciation for the genuine communication that took place within the women's tent, saying, "Before people talked for us [African women], but not to us. Nobody talks for anyone anymore."

Women's critique

 The Planeta Femea activists sharply criticized the documents approved by the official conference, basing their denunciations on the everyday experiences of women throughout the world. A "Declaration by Women at the Global Forum" claimed authority on the basis of the "millions of women who experience daily the violence of environmental degradation, poverty and exploitation of women's work and bodies, ... our representation of more than 50 percent of the world's population and our special responsibility for the nurturance and continuity of life."

From this perspective, the women found the documents emanating from the Earth Summit to be fundamentally flawed. "The Rio Declaration [the Earth Summit's proclamation of environmental principles] has not given us the philosophical basis of change," said Rosina Wiltshire of the Women and Development Unit (WAND) in Barbados.

 In emphasizing what they called sustainable development, Earth Summit negotiators refused to break with prevailing economic, social and environmental paradigms, the women charged. "The catchword of ęsustainable development' to us in the South is a contradiction. Development means a kind of violence that comes with it," said Corinne Kumar of India - a violence of communities displaced by major hydroelectric projects, of rural families losing their land to export-oriented plantations, of strip-mined forests once used as community resources, of local water supplies poisoned by pesticide runoff. Kumar asserts that a genuine focus on the concept of sustainability "begins to show the way for another ethic," one which emphasizes caring between people and the interconnectedness of ecosystems and communities.

The women also criticized the Earth Summit for failing to address a number of specific issues, such as militarism and nuclear weapons and power. The contrast is stark between the Earth Summit's Agenda 21, UNCED's agenda for the next century, and the Women's Action Agenda 21, approved at the World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet, a November 1991 meeting held in Miami by IPAC and attended by 1,500 women from 83 countries.

 Agenda 21 does not mention militarism, and the Rio Declaration states only that "Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, if necessary." In contrast, the Women's Action Agenda 21 charges that "military expenditures, the international arms trade and armed conflict deprive billions of human beings of basic security and well-being" and condemns "the disastrous environmental impact of all military activity." The women's agenda calls for a 50 percent reduction in military spending, the creation of civilian, gender-balanced commissions to scrutinize all military activities and decisive actions to ban the international traffic in weapons of mass destruction.

Where Agenda 21 ignores the issue of nuclear power and weapons, the Women's Action Agenda 21 demands that "nuclear weapons be dismantled, that nuclear testing cease immediately and a global nuclear test ban treaty be negotiated, signed and enforced" and that the use of nuclear power be phased out.

The women consistently made efforts to connect broad policy statements to the specific experiences of groups of women. The call for a nuclear test ban, for example, was linked to the nightmarish experience of many women in the Marshall Islands; poisoned by radioactive fallout, they are giving birth to "jellyfish babies," born without limbs, eyes or brains.

 This insistence on weaving women's concrete experiences into structural analysis deepened and enriched the women's diagnosis of problems and prescriptions for change.

For example, Zen Tedesse, an Ethiopian panelist at Planeta Femea, discussed desertification, Africa's most pressing environmental crisis. Desertification, the transformation of lands near genuine deserts into desert-like conditions, takes its most severe toll on women, who perform 80 percent of rural labor in Africa. Desertification reduces crop yields and forces women to walk longer distances to collect increasingly scarce firewood and water. In an attempt to involve women in solving the crisis that affects them most severely, many foreign aid projects are recruiting women to participate in tree-planting schemes and other means of combating desertification.

 Tedesse, however, pointed out that African women perform the vast majority of household labor and agricultural work, and are increasingly forced to take on additional tasks as debt-strapped governments cut back services in areas such as health care. Assigning women the additional responsibility of fighting desertification will increase their burden beyond already unmanageable levels, she argued. Accordingly, she said, efforts to address desertification cannot be piecemeal; "there must be a restructuring of political and social relations." The sexual division of labor must be reconstituted and the foreign debts of African countries must be forgiven or reduced, so that governments can again provide some of the social services they have cut back as well as pursue measures to address the desertification problem directly.

This sort of comprehensive analysis of developmental and environmental problems, based on people's real-life experiences, was almost totally lacking from the official Earth Summit.

Women's mark

 Despite their harsh criticism of the Earth Summit, the Planeta Femea activists made a significant mark on it.

The Planeta Femea meetings in Rio were the culmination of women's efforts to influence the outcome of the Earth Summit. They lobbied at the preparatory meetings held for the official conference, held the November 1991 Miami conference to set their own agenda and urged national governments to support women's demands and to include women in their Earth Summit delegations.

 According to Bella Abzug, the former New York congressperson who serves as co-chair of IPAC, the lobbying campaign paid off. The early drafts of the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 "hardly mentioned the word ęwoman,'" she said. The final documents "represent an enormous jump from [that] time."

One of the Rio Declaration's 27 principles, for example, states, "Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development."

 The most significant accomplishment of the women activists may be what Abzug called the "mainstreaming" of women's concerns throughout the documents. Women are mentioned throughout Agenda 21 as having a critical role in protecting forests and biodiversity, and as the group most harmed by environmental degradation. Women succeeded at the Earth Summit, said Abzug, in creating a growing awareness that women "are the managers of development and the primary environmental caretakers."