Gender Equality and Sustainable Development

Championed by a wide range of stakeholders from civil society and the Women's Major Group, to Governments and United Nations agencies, the Rio+20 Conference in June will no doubt include gender equality in several places of its outcome document. What will this mean for the achievement of true gender equality and sustainable development? The two are inextricably linked, but the discourse on gender equality and sustainable development within the context of Rio+20 cannot be fully understood without looking back at some remarkable events which shaped the first Rio Conference 20 years ago.

History: A Look Back Over Two Decades

A glaring lack of reference to women in the preparatory drafts of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 motivated Bella Abzug and Mim Kelber, founders of the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), to address the issue. To this end, the 1991 World Women's Congress brought some 1,500 women together who hammered out the Women's Action Agenda for the twenty-first century, an important part of the preparatory process to the Conference, at the national and regional level, and ultimately in Rio at the 1992 Earth Summit itself. It is worthy to recall that the only text that went to Rio without a single bracket was Chapter 24 of Agenda 21: Global Action for Women Towards Sustainable and Equitable Development.

Principle 20 of the Rio Declaration, Chapter 24 of Agenda 21, and the formation of the Women's Major Group and Caucus are all worthy legacies of this historic encounter that brought women from all walks of life and from all parts of the globe to inform each other, including those attending the negotiations process, about the realities of women's lives. Perhaps the most profound result was the network of activists who have continued to fight to ensure that women's voices and experiences impact policy in all fora, not just at the United Nations.

WEDO co-founder, Thais Corral, together with the Brazilian non-governmental organization Rede De Desenvolvimento Humano, spearheaded a new round of consultations before and during the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg to assess not only the progress of Governments, but also of civil society itself during the 10 years following the Earth Summit. The Women's Action Agenda for a Healthy and Peaceful Planet defined the new and emerging issues of the twenty-first century. It recognized the growing evidence of climate change and the threat of increased militarism as perhaps two of the greatest challenges of the planet, as well as the need for women to add a new set of instruments to traditional advocacy and action in order to avoid rolling back even the most modest gains that had been achieved since Rio in 1992.

Looking back on these 20 years, WEDO has tried to draw on the lessons learned since those visionary women transformed negotiations at the United Nations in addition to, as it turned out, many other places. Following the path of environmental activists, such as the late Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and WEDO board member, Vandana Shiva, a leading advocate at WEDO who positively impacted many poor farmers through the fight she helped wage in her native India, and the many other dedicated women who made a difference -- big or small -- in their own communities and worldwide, WEDO feels obliged to confront the Rio+20 preparations with no less determination.

Today: Challenges in the Run-up to Rio+20

In 2012, funding for spectacular meetings like the 1991 Conference is scarce. WEDO and women all over the world have embraced new technologies, working virtually to spread information quickly. Today they are able to organize, agree on and take action with speed. Stopping there, however, does not do justice to the intent and spirit of Principle 20 of the Rio Declaration: "Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development."

The space readily available for women to make their realities and experiences, much less their aspirations, a part of policy making is still limited in most countries -- even within the very same international organizations that helped birth the Rio commitments. In 1991, a tribunal of women judges gathered evidence on the hazardous work and environmentally threatening conditions they endured. Have these conditions changed sufficiently?

Women identify numerous areas in which they have not seen progress, or in which progress is being reversed. Women continue to hold the vast majority of non-professional jobs; are in the lower income bracket; live in homes and areas vulnerable to climate change threats; sacrifice education in order to provide food, water and fuel for their families; face violence in the home as well as in society; encounter discrimination when trying to access productive and financial resources; encounter roadblocks to their sexual and reproductive health and rights; contract illnesses from burning biomass in their homes; lose access to communal and traditional land, as both local and international interests take over; and face environmental hazards such as chemical spills and poor sanitation that have long-term health effects. Yet, women are not helpless victims. Women are leaders and organizers; they raise awareness and fight for change and for strong roles in planning and decision making.

The Task: What Must We Do at Rio+20?

The house of sustainable development cannot stand on an uneven foundation. Not only do the three pillars -- the social, the environmental and the economic -- have to bear equal weight, they have to intertwine to further strengthen the foundation for a more sustainable world. The groundwork has already been put in place in 1992 and 2002: the precautionary principle, common but differentiated responsibilities, and free, prior, and informed consent -- especially in indigenous and women's communities and spaces -- must be upheld. Voluntary commitments need to be strengthened with legislative teeth, accountability and financial mechanisms. Political will is a key ingredient.

As evidenced by the many men and women affected by the food, fuel, and financial crises, we have seen that economic viability cannot be gained at the expense of humanity, nor at the expense of sustainable ecosystems. Any new financial frontiers must be embedded in a rights based approach.

Social equity and environmental justice must remain at the heart of sustainable development, as should the outcomes of the Rio+20 Conference. As countries confront the challenges of providing food, fuel, shelter, healthcare, and employment for growing and shifting populations, their Governments must find ways to preserve and protect vital ecosystems to support life and human livelihoods in an equitable manner, with an emphasis on human rights, gender equality, and environmental justice. They must find ways to limit climate change and its destructive impact that disproportionately affect the poor and women. Addressing gender equality in tandem with environmental and economic issues presents an opportunity to meet sustainable development goals more effectively.

Rio+20 places strong emphasis on a green economy, which must be sustainable and equitable in all its aspects, with an aim to transform economies and not simply rename them. A green economy for sustainable development and poverty eradication will improve equitable distribution of wealth and will respect planetary boundaries, some of which have already been surpassed, but a green economy alone will not achieve sustainable development.

Women are making their voices heard and are fighting to ensure that Rio+20 marks real progress for all people. A successful Rio+20 will enhance women's rights and their access to and control over resources and decision making spheres. It must go beyond the gross domestic product to include indicators that measure women's contributions and consider externalities; ensure that gender budgeting is used for sustainable development implementation; initiate financial mechanisms that target women: include them in the design of and promotion for innovative initiatives; provide social protection measures (for example, basic services such as education and health); address access to safe, sustainable energy technologies; include women in food and agriculture priorities (related to land rights, speculation, extension services); provide for capacity building and appropriate technologies that have undergone assessment for health and environmental impacts; recognize and protect indigenous and women's traditional knowledge; and protect water rights.

Sustainable development governance systems will have to be exemplary in fostering and requiring participatory decision making and inclusion, mainstreaming gender equality and providing adequately for the many, instead of protecting the mighty few. Green governance is empty of meaning while women continue to be at the sidelines of decision making processes in too many governments and most boardrooms.

As we approach Rio+20, we must take a closer look at what sustainable development and a green economy really mean. We must do so with the same drive and energy with which we confronted the overarching paradigm of development 20 years ago when honing the Women's Action Agenda 21 at the World Women's Congress. We must, once again, listen to those who are experiencing the ravages of the current development paradigm, we must be guided by the science that informs the climate change debates, and we must disaggregate the economic data through the eyes of poor women who are unable to participate in person.

Above all, we must show through rigorous analysis what the new jargon, the new environmental lexicon, really means: What is a green economy? What does carbon neutral mean? Who is trading greenhouse gas emissions credits and why? What does this economy offer to indigenous and traditional women who continue to bear the brunt of so-called development strategies? What are we doing when we protect areas? Finally, we must also assess our own progress and leadership and be transparent in our plans to ensure that those mechanisms we have established, including the entity UN Women, are funded and empowered by women's realities to bring about the paradigm shift that is necessary to usher in sustainable development.

WEDO has sought to focus its work over the past decade since the World Summit on Social Development on two areas: building global alliances and addressing climate change through a gender perspective. In spite of the fact that natural disasters have plagued the lives of many across the globe (particularly in those countries that can least afford it), nations are approaching the end of the Kyoto Protocol with a giddy nonchalance that is difficult to understand, given the frightening effect on the long-term outlook. Rio+20 will need to outline the responsibilities of all in order to reach true sustainable development.

Rio+20 will lay out the process for numerous actions that will shape development in the coming decades. Women, especially poor women, have a right to demand that those of us (women and men) privileged enough to be at the table, do not shirk our duty to ensure justice, nor pass them only the crumbs of a new economy.