Women and the Environment

Summary of the discussion

Photo credit: Andreà Paula Stelling, Brazil

The e-discussion on “Women and the Environment” was organized by SEED Initiative, UNEP, UNIDO and UN Women from 10 to 24 June 2014. The intention of the e-discussion was to mobilize a network of women and men across the world to highlight some of the current challenges and opportunities for women in the environment. Relevant contributions to this discussion are now informing UN Women, civil society and intergovernmental preparatory work leading up to the Beijing+20 review in 2015.

The e-discussion consisted of five separate discussion threads: 1) Women entrepreneurs and workers in green economies; 2) Impact of climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters on women’s livelihoods; 3) Women in green industries: promoting clean technologies and eco-innovation for sustainable development; 4) Women farmers and food and nutrition security; and 5) Women’s roles in sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

The discussion was open for everyone to follow, and registered members to post comments. A panel of 10 experts provided guidance and substantive inputs. They came from a variety of organizations including the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), UN Secretary-General’s Climate Change Support Team, Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), SEED Initiative, and other relevant institutions. 


The e-discussion attracted 4,070 women and men from 166 countries. We received 179 substantive comments which analyzed the status of women and the environment, shared good practices and innovative initiatives to advance participation of women in sustainable development and the green economy, and showcased workable approaches to make environmental policies and programmes more responsive to women’s needs. They emphasized that despite progress there is a long way to go to achieve gender equality and empower women in the environment. In this summary, we outline some of the critical contributions brought by the e-discussion participants per subject area.

1.     Women Entrepreneurs and Workers in Green Economies

Following the Rio+20 commitment by countries to adopt green economy approaches in the context of poverty reduction and sustainable development, it is critical to seek catalytic means for making such policy directions a success. Green economy approaches and the generation of green jobs, promise to contribute to mitigating climate change and protecting the environment while ensuring that economic growth is sustainable. An enabling policy environment coupled with deliberate action by government, the private sector, development practitioners and workers’ organizations, among others, are necessary to promote green growth. This includes women’s full and equal participation in the green economy, in decision-making at different levels, in the labour force, in entrepreneurial activities and sharing in the benefits of green growth. On the role of women in green economies, and the opportunities that lie therein, participants said the following:

Throughout the discussion it has become very clear that green industries provide a great opportunity for women. They enable women to enhance their own and their family’s living standards due to the generation of additional income and provide additional learning opportunities and chances to develop their capacities and skills. (Hedda Oehlberger-Femundsenden, Norway)

Women can catalyze clean energy technology markets by engaging in income generating opportunities along the value chain, particularly in marketing, distribution, sales and after sales servicing of these technologies. Women can play a unique role in these value chains as they leverage their existing networks to promote the adoption of these new technologies, as well as their roles as trusted sources of information to other users with regard to product recommendations. (Genevieve Smith, United States)

Many participants shared examples of initiatives where green economy is working for women. The women-owned tea houses in Nepal, for instance, are providing a steady source of income for women in the Himalayas while supporting sustainable tourism in the region; and Solar Sister solar lamps are providing income to more than 600 women entrepreneurs in Uganda and neighboring countries.

There are many [other] examples of companies utilizing women in their clean energy value chains and reaping the benefits of an expanded consumer base and strong sales: Eco-Fuel Africa distributing eco-fuel briquettes through women entrepreneurs in Uganda; Living Goods distributing various health and clean energy products through independent female sales agents in Uganda and Kenya; Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprise engaging women as “Sakhis” to sell and distribute clean energy products in India; and Grameen Shakti working with women as technical engineers for after-sales servicing of solar lights and cook stoves in Bangladesh. (Genevieve Smith, United States)

I have observed some examples of creative eco-innovations started by women. The first is a company that produces fashionable bags made from the plant “leather” of water hyacinths. They made productive use of a plant that causes problems in local water systems, often clogging and polluting waterways and causing floods. They have provided livelihood to poor communities and have transformed an environmental problem into a productive, sustainable, and beneficial business. (Michelle Watkins, The Philippines)

Participants also recommended the promotion of networks and cooperatives to increase women participation and opportunities in the green economy. They cited cooperative models in Brazil and Palestine that enabled women to compete and market their products. For cooperatives to flourish, however, participants reminded of the importance of government’s support in creating the enabling environment.

Partnership building is often a real strength of women and could contribute to overcoming these difficulties, at least in part. (Helen Marquard, United Kingdom)

2.     Impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on women’s livelihoods and food security

Women and girls comprise a majority of the world’s poor and, because of their unequal economic, social, political, and cultural positions; and are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Such impacts are evident in women’s livelihoods and health, food and nutrition security, access to water and energy, and in their coping capabilities in the face of natural and other disasters. In addition, and especially in rural communities, women have to deal with environmental stresses and shocks and their aftermath, significantly increasing their burden of unpaid care work. Therefore, women’s access to and control over productive assets, such as land, credit and technology, help mitigate such impacts on their lives and livelihoods. There is also a need for greater participation of women in natural resource management and decision-making in the household and the community. Women’s strengthened capabilities to play active environmental and social roles are indispensable for sustainable development.

Backed by evidence, participants unanimously agreed that climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately affect more women and girls. The impact is acute among populations of women and girls living in poverty, in rural areas of developing countries where their livelihoods rely almost exclusively on the immediate exploitation of natural resources, and in coastal settlements or other specific areas that face the high risk of natural disasters.

Women’s reliance on healthy soil, fisheries, water sources, medicinal plants, forest products and much more are deeply affected by climate change. (Cate Owren, United States)

Africa and Asia's coastal cities grow and the poor people [largely women] are forced to move away and relocate. Most settle in river banks or at sea level or below sea level regions and generally encounter with the absence of any measures against natural disasters. (Semiha Bal, Turkey)

Participants shared evidence showing that many rural women are very active in protecting the environment from the threat of degradation, and many women are drivers of environmental activism and social change in their communities. However, women’s participation and leadership in climate change mitigation activities, food security, and environmental policies and programmes are still marginal in many societies.

Governments, UN bodies, civil society, and other stakeholders need to ensure an enabling environment for the increased participation and substantive inputs of women in decision and policy-making in local, community, national, regional and international institutions, processes, negotiations and policies related to climate change issues and other environmental impacts. (Raissa Muhutdinova, Kyrgyzstan)

When it comes to discussing policies relating to climate change, I feel that these discussions should be taken to the grassroots where women are most affected. (Eunice Olembo, Kenya)

Participants recognized that women are better prepared to anticipate and deal with environmental shocks and aftermaths, and their first-hand experience, expertise and knowledge about the environment are essential in the design and implementation of measures for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Women’s responsibilities in households and communities, as stewards of natural and household resources, position them well to contribute to livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental realities. (Raissa Muhutdinova, Kyrgyzstan)

Participants also provided examples of how women’s capacity to cope with climate change is actually improving the conditions of their communities in several countries. They also highlighted the fact that some governments are gradually recognizing women’s positive influence on environmental programmes.

[In Bangladesh], women’s role in household and municipal waste management is gradually being

recognized and pronounced. In 7 city corporations and 47 municipalities women counsellors have been involved in municipal level solid waste management activities.(Dilruba Haider, Bangladesh)

3.     Women and technologies and innovation for sustainable development

Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication are shaped by a number of critical factors, including innovation and access to appropriate technologies. However, access to such technologies by men and women is highly unequal across sectors. For example, while women are increasingly involved in using improved cook stove and solar energy technologies, they face constraints in acquiring the requisite skills and training to develop, maintain and operate them. Supporting women’s involvement in innovation processes and green technologies will not only enhance their capabilities and livelihoods but also contribute to the wellbeing of their communities and overall gender equality.

Partnership between private and public institutions as well as with international organizations, communities and civil society groups was cited as an effective mechanism to increase women’s participation in the green economy, and scale up opportunities for women.

A strong example […] of a women-led eco-innovation is the development and deployment of the socket - a soccer ball that harnesses kinetic energy, creating an off-grid solution that provides light and low-voltage electricity for small appliances. By leverage strategic partnerships in the public and private sectors, those women have not only expanded the market reach of their product, but have created a positive social impact while serving as a role model for other women.  (Sharon Reed, United States)

Convened by UNIDO, the Green Industry Platform is a global high-level, multi-stakeholder partnership intended to act as a forum to catalyse, mobilize and mainstream action on green industry around the world. It provides a framework to bring together governmental, business and civil society leaders to secure concrete commitments and mobilize action in support of the green industry agenda. Recently, the platform has established a ‚Women in Green Industry’s Chapter’, which specifically aims to benefit women who work in green industries. The idea is to bring women’s issues in engaging in green industries, for instance limited access to resources and opportunities as well as restricted inclusion in decision-making, on the discussion table and help finding solutions to these obstacles. Further, this platform allows women to get connected and provides an opportunity for them to exchange experiences, which is an important aspect in working towards women’s economic empowerment. (Claudia Linke-Heep, Germany)

Nevertheless, participants highlighted the fact that women are fewer in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, which are fields that provide the necessary skills for accessing many green jobs and contributing to innovation and technology. Also, social norms historically allocate to women a greater number of household and family tasks, responsibilities and commitments which consume most of their productive time. Other factors that participants highlighted as hindering women’s economic participation in the green economy include: lack of access to land and land tenure and ownership, limited access and control over to productive resources, restricted access to capital and technology, reduced access to markets and networks, absence of social protection, and inadequate child care options.

4.     Women Farmers and Food and Nutrition Security

Women are an important part of the food security and nutrition equation: they represent an estimated 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, produce much of locally consumed food and are responsible for household food security through producing, processing, and preparing food for consumption. These activities have important implications for the burden of unpaid care work on women and girls. Also, persisting gender inequalities are generally linked with hunger and malnutrition around the world. According to the World Food Programme, an estimated 60% of chronically hungry people are women and girls. Women eat last and least in many communities due to economic and cultural norms. Gender disparities are widespread in land holdings in all regions, a situation that has been exacerbated by ‘land grabs’ that take agricultural land out of food production. Evidence suggests that countries where women lack land ownership rights or access to credit have on average 60% and 85% more malnourished children, respectively.

Participants discussed some of the impacts of climate change on agriculture and women’s livelihoods. With climate change, women are increasingly required to diversify their economic activities to make their livelihoods less dependent on natural resources. This poses particular challenges to rural women, who traditionally spend a substantive part of their time on unpaid care work and household activities including fetching water, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children, cultivating for subsistence.

Voluntary organizations are helping women to take up weaving, tailoring and other vocations by providing production skills, finance and business management skills and even establishing market linkages. (Alka Awasthi, India)

To overcome these barriers, several participants proposed a focus on awareness raising, education and training on the causes and consequences of climate change, and related mitigation and adaptation mechanisms. Other participants emphasized the need for governments, private companies and civil society to step in to address structural barriers and provide financial, technical and legislative support for rural women.

It would be helpful to have training programs on adaptation with a special focus on the needs of women such as alternative cultivation methods and more resistant crops in agriculture, more efficient domestic and agricultural use of available water resources, alternative sources of domestic energy. (Semiha Bal, Turkey)

Education to learn how to deal with environmental shocks is key; it is also helpful to provide women with alternatives such drought resistant crops and early maturing varieties to cope with effects of climate change.(Roulene Omogi, Kenya)

Other factors that participants highlighted as hindering women’s economic participation in the environment, with direct influence on their agricultural activities, include: lack of access to land and land tenure and ownership, limited access to productive resources, restricted access to capital and technology, shortage of required skills and training, reduced access to markets and networks, deterring social norms and culturally-accepted practices.

5.     Women’s roles in sustainable patterns of production and consumption

The well-being of humanity and the environment, and the optimal functioning of the economy, depend upon the responsible and prudent management and sustainable use of the planet’s natural resources. This means, among other things, dramatically reducing both natural resource exploitation and use of toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants in the production and consumption of goods and services. Additionally, the world currently loses a third of all food to waste in rich countries while many suffer with chronic hunger in much of the developing world. Women play a crucial role in provision of healthy food and nutrition; are subjected to inhumane working conditions; are affected by inorganic pollutants through effects on their reproductive capabilities; and remain vulnerable to shocks due to their dependence on financial markets, to mention a few aspects of gender-related issues.

The aspiration to lift 1 billion people out of absolute poverty, two thirds of whom are women, amidst a forecast of an additional 1 to 3 billion middle-class consumers joining the global economy by 2030 presents a call to transform the management, use and distribution of the world’s resources. This growing challenge is being addressed by ‘decoupling’ economic growth from increasing natural resource exploitation and extraction. The impact that interventions concerning women potentially have on making consumption and production more sustainable is undoubtable as we fully account for the interdependencies that exist between women’s poverty and the degradation of their environments. Increasing resource efficiency and use of non-toxic inputs, promoting sustainable lifestyles and reducing waste, could not only contribute to women’s welfare but also to sustainable consumption and production. Such pathways also have the potential to contribute to poverty alleviation, the transition towards low-carbon and green economies, and inclusive, gender-equitable sustainable development.

Women are also a key player in encouraging sustainable patterns of production and consumption and ensuring food security of families and communities.

Women are natural resource managers and tend to have a small ecological footprint. Their production and consumption patterns tend to be more resource-efficient, they are more likely to recycle and they make more sustainable decisions for their households and businesses. (Hedda Oehlberger-Femundsenden, Norway)

In developing countries like my own, women play a major role in sustainable production and consumption in so many ways. For instance, by switching to renewable sources of energy such as solar as a source of electricity, by putting in place best agricultural practices that do not degrade the environment, by reducing wastage of resources such as water, by encouraging proper disposal of wastes and by engaging in projects that promote the restoration of the environment. (Roulene Omogi, Kenya)


Environmental destruction and climate change have had negative long-term impacts on overall human wellbeing, including livelihoods, income, and health. For instance, the increased incidence and devastating impact of land degradation, water pollution, and natural disasters on livelihoods, especially in coastal and rural areas of developing countries, have disproportionally affected women and girls. This is due to, among other factors, to women’s unequal access to assets and resources, and limited participation in household and community decision-making, including about environmental management. Their participation in higher governance structures is even less.

Environmental concerns have evolved over the past decades. Environment was integrated into sustainable development frameworks along with economic and social dimensions. This resulted in new and emerging issues and opportunities. Green economy and green industry initiatives, for instance, attempt to reconcile economic growth and environmental protection, creating green jobs that are intended to be sustainable and low-carbon, and promote the earth’s resilience. These job trends are often concentrated in areas of science and technology—for example, jobs related to energy efficient and renewable energy technologies and materials—where women are historically underrepresented.

Environmental degradation and climate change impacts as well as solutions also have implications for social reproduction and unpaid care work. Natural disasters and environmental stresses in general tend to add to the burdens women’s and girls’ unpaid care work, and environmental and sustainable development projects and programmes often inadvertently do the same.

The participants of the e-discussion on “Women and the Environment,” thus, culminate in a proposed set of recommendations for governments, public and private institutions, civil society, and the international and local communities. More so is the need for all these sectors to work in partnership, to:

  1. Provide an enabling policy and programmatic environment for gender equality and women empowerment in the green economy, as a key consideration in preparation of national development plans and through commitments in national budgets;
  2. Increase women participation in governance structures that oversee the implementation of environmental decisions, policies and programmes, with the likely effect of uplifting women’s rights, productive capacity, household and community economic wellbeing;
  3. Provide an enabling environment in which access to finance, social security and technical support for rural women and women living in poverty is made possible as a necessary condition for their effective participation in agriculture and economic diversification that will ease pressure on reliance on natural resources;
  4. Provide women with easy access to clean, safe water and energy, so as to influence the refocusing of women’s efforts on productive activities – including decent work – capacity building in the area of natural resource management and climate change mitigation;
  5. Ensure women’s rights to inherit and own land, and where necessary, to have equal access to land tenure rights as men, to enhance their full decision-making powers on land use and management. This includes women’s access to and control of other productive resources;
  6. Involve women in the design, development and use of clean technologies and environmental solutions, enabling them to have equal access and participation in green industries, and ensuring a larger proportion of humanity is engaged in making a contribution to green growth of economies;
  7. Engage men to advocate for women in the green economy to ensure access to green jobs, and the development of green technologies and innovations, leading to increased welfare and freedom from impacts of pollution and poverty for both men and women;
  8. Provide relevant education, training and mentoring opportunities for women for their capacities to participate in planning and implementation of environmental activities to be enhanced;
  9. Build partnerships with individuals and organizations to support women-led environmental enterprises;
  10. Disaggregate environmental data by sex for advocacy, monitoring and accountability purposes.



Last Update

Women farmers and food and nutrition security Closed

Topics: Consumption and waste management
Initiated by Anna Falth

26 Jun 2014 00:21

Women entrepreneurs and workers in green economies Closed

Topics: Green jobs, research & innovation
Initiated by Anna Falth

25 Jun 2014 19:51

Women's roles in sustainable patterns of production and consumption Closed

Topics: Green jobs, research & innovation, Consumption and waste management
Initiated by Anna Falth

24 Jun 2014 18:19